The hot topic in the NHL lately has been the number of serious head injuries sustained because of hits to the head.
As hockey fans, we have all seen some nasty checks, and some scary moments on the ice. Any time you see a player laying motionless on the ice, on your favorite team or your biggest rival, it is always scary to watch. Everyone prays that the player will be OK.
Some people have become so scared of watching these hits though, that it has lead to a league wide discussion on the legality of hits to the head.
Now obviously the league wants to protect the players. Like any company, they have a product, and they don't want to lose any. But making hits to the head illegal will not save the NHL the way some think it will. If that is allowed to go through, the NHL is not only eliminating the risk that makes hockey players some of the most courageous athletes in all of sports, but they are dishonoring the past players that make those big hits a trade mark of their games.
Everyone, no matter which sport they call their favorite, knows the toughness in hockey.
While some aren't fans of the game, they at least recognize that hockey poses a lot of danger, arguably more then all other team sports. Eliminating hits to the head makes the game less dangerous. While most say, "hey, thats good" it is in fact not good at all.
Players know the risk every time they touch the puck. At any moment they can be checked out of nowhere and wake up a few minutes later wondering what state they are in. The best of players, however, power on, and do not hesitate on making a play, knowing full well the risk that it poses.
Play like this is what puts hockey in a league of its own. But if you eliminate hits to the head, you take away that risk. You take some of the skill out of the game, by not just saying it's OK for a player to put their head down, but even encouraging it.
The simple phrase of "keep your head up" has been the first rule of hockey when you start playing in leagues that check. It's the first thing you are told when your a hockey player that turns 12. If you want to keep playing, you have to be able to take a hit. By eliminating hits to the head, you eliminate the un-written rule of keeping your head up. You are daring the other team to hit you as you skate through the neutral zone with your head down, because the major penalty that would follow is sure to help.
Some great players in NHL history have been known for putting an opponent down when they were dumb enough to come through with their heads down. Last year, Scott Stevens was inducted in to the Hall Of Fame, and for good reason. One only needs to search his name on youtube to find some of the best hits ever to be laid upon any soul that was unfortunate enough to be on the ice with him.
While Stevens was not a bad offensive player, it was his hitting that earned him respect among all players in the league. In fact, defensively he was so good, he did not have one season in his career in which he had a minus rating on the year, with a +393 on his career. But is he a Hall of Famer without the hitting? Well, that's a different discussion for a different time, but it is clear, the hard hits he put on his foes made him an automatic first ballot Hall of Famer.
Now, I am not a Devils fan, in fact, I hate them with a passion. I am in fact a huge Rangers fan. As much as I hated Stevens for being such a key to New Jersey's success, I couldn't help but respect him for his great hockey ability, especially defensively.
So if hits to the head are banned, are you saying some of his best hits, some of the hits that are a part of his legacy shouldn't have happened? Was putting Lindros down for the count a bad play? What about sending Paul Kariya to la la land in the Stanley cup finals in 2003? Inducting a great player in to the Hall of Fame, then turning around and saying everything he was known for is now against the rules would be bad PR for a league that is already struggling to increase it's fan base.
And what about those players who have yet to make it to the NHL yet? I'm sure there are many young players out there, who worked so hard to become good defenseman, and who worked their whole lives on perfecting the art of the open ice hit.
Do those players become obsolete? Is an entire life of working to make it to the NHL going down the tube because some rule changes made his role less important? Making hits to the head Illegal may save players from injury, but it will not save their skill. The NHL owes it's future blue line patrolmen more than eliminating their role in the league.
Now let's examine the recent hit that brought about such discussion.
New York Islanders forward Doug Weight's hard hit on young Carolina Hurricanes Forward Brandon Sutter. As seen in the picture of this article, Sutter sure got knocked out pretty good. His unconscious face alone might be enough to make some cringe, and beg for some rule changes. As unfortunate as it was to witness,my reaction was not one of horror, but my exact thought was "keep your head up next time."
I mean no disrespect to Brandon, but he put himself in a vulnerable spot, and payed the price. Doug Weight laid a hard, punishing, destructive, but most importantly, clean hit on him. Brandon Sutter was taught a lesson, one that he should have already learned, but also one he was fortunate not to learn in an even worse way than he just did. Brandon is no stranger to those hits either. At the World Junior Championships, he put a punishing hit on the late Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov.
Now, the hit may have been questionable, but in the end, he was showing one reason that the Hurricanes selected him 11th overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. This time Brandon, you live by the sword, and die by the sword. Nobody is immune to being on the receiving end of a big hit. What makes some players so good is that they can showcase their amazing puck skills, without putting themselves at a greater risk by putting their heads down, and lowering their chances of getting hit like that.
Now obviously, an elbow, a forearm, a fist to the head should be penalized. Those kind of hits have always been dirty, and it should not change. But the hit that has always been clean is keeping that arm tucked in, and using the shoulder.
It is not anyone else's fault if a player puts himself in a vulnerable spot. Nobody has the time to make the decision to stop the hit when a player puts his head down. It is impossible to expect these hits to stop, because one player does not know the actions and thoughts of another. How could Doug Weight have known what Sutter thought, and saw. Weight has never been a dirty player, and in that instance, he was lining up a hit in order to stop the other team from advancing with the puck, simple as that.
Obviously, there has yet to be action taken with the NHL regarding this matter, and everyone is exploring ways in which the game could grow, and gain popularity. Everyone wants to make some sort of change, but hits to to head do not need to be one of them.
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