NHL Concussions: 5 Ways to Make a Smarter More Physical Game
Although NHL chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan is succeeding in his new role, overall player safety is still in question.
Since Shanahan took over the role of chief disciplinarian at the beginning of last season's Stanley Cup Finals, concussions caused from head shots are on the decline.
But NHL players both noted and non-noted are still finding ways to injure one another or injure themselves.
The league still seems to be under fire for accidental contact concussions like the one on Claude Giroux or this one on that could have resulted in a concussion thrown by referee Steven Walkom on Timonen.
The game is clearly faster than it has ever been. Players are skating as fast as they can for loose pucks, sometimes forgetting to look where they are skating.
But although the game is faster, due to Shanahan's new head shot crack down, it seems as though quite a few NHL players are suddenly afraid to finish their checks or else be subject to the "Shanahammer".
Perhaps Shanahan should go around to every team stressing the importance of hitting in the game, and not taking it out completely?
Well, he likely won't go that far, but here are five realistic suggestions that would curb accidental injuries in the NHL while maintaining the physicality that all hockey fans know and love.
1. Smaller Chest Pads Among Skaters
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Hockey chest pads have one goal in mind: keep the upper torso of your body protected against stray pucks, body checks and the occasional cross check.
But with the game being faster than ever now, the shoulders in these chest pads are now being use to hit opponents because the shoulder area is so thick and padded.
Now the reason I show the photo above is not because it is Lidstrom with the Stanley Cup.
Instead, it is to show the difference in shoulder size between a player without pads on and a player with shoulder pads.
Clearly, these shoulder pads do not need to be this big, but until they are downsized to "lacrosse style" shoulder pads, head shots via shoulder to the head will continue one way or another.
To put it simply, players are going to hit with the part of their body that they can hit the hardest with, at the least physical hurt to themselves.
Take away the massive shoulder pads on the chest pads and see who really wants to hit.
Giving the players smaller shoulder pads would actually show which players come to hit, and which were only around to head shot players (intentionally or otherwise).
If Brendan Shanahan is serious about his crackdown on illegal hits to the head, this is logically the next step that would follow from this season.
2. Hybrid Icing
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I want to recognize a couple things before I make my case for hybrid icing.
First, I love the way icing is currently set up in the NHL.
The concept of skating as fast as you can for a puck that is going to be icing is as exhilarating for the player as it is entertaining for the spectator.
But having said that, there are plenty of players (mostly in minor hockey, but some in major hockey) who have had their careers ended, or severely reduced, because of a hit, collision or some kind of other awkward fall where they have been seriously injured on a touch icing.
Don Cherry has a great video clip with an example of why the NHL needs to get rid of touch icing.
There is nothing to prove on an icing race. If players want to know who is a faster player, there is the NHL All-Star Skills Competition for that.
The touch icing race is a race that is not needed in hockey and must be removed from today's game.
I realize that section 81 of the NHL rule book gives some provision for a referee to assess a penalty in the event of "unnecessary or dangerous contact,' but is it really worth it to be reactive about this topic instead of proactive?
The NHL has to find a way to make it safer for the player going back to touch up for the icing or else get rid of the touch icing all together.
3. Lose the Instigator Rule
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The "instigator" penalty needs to either be re-worded or thrown out completely.
In this age of head shots on top players on teams, it is important to realize that sometimes, the NHL disciplinary office will not get the suspension "right" in the eyes of the players. The only way to make it right is to duke it out.
The instigator penalty (46.11 for those of you who care) reads as follows:
"An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season."
I couldn't just pick out one clause in that sentence that I have a problem with, because the entire sentence is terrible.
"Gloves off first?" "First punch thrown?" "Menacing attitude or posture?" "Verbal instigation?"
Those are all musts for a fight to happen in a first place. Players don't fight with their gloves on, without throwing punches, with a "hello, how are you doing today?" attitude or without something to set it off.
But the biggest thing that needs to come to the forefront is that NHL players sometimes want retribution for an incident that happened either that season, or sometimes, even that game.
For all intents and purposes, players should be allowed to fight without fearing the back swing of the "Shanahammer."
Removing the instigator penalty would instantly make a more physical hockey game as well as a more "fair" hockey game in the eyes of the players themselves.
Players would think twice about throwing a cheap shot on opponents because they knew their pay back would be coming from more than just their playing time or pocket books.
4. Get Rid of the Trapezoid Behind the Net
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For those of you reading this who didn't follow hockey before the lockout, let me give you a one word synopsis of what hockey used to be like for goalies who wanted to play the puck:
Now? Not so much.
Goalies don't play the puck anymore or score goals like we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Since the NHL has implemented their post-lockout rules, one of the many rules they put in was a penalty to goalies who played the puck behind the net outside of this unfortunate geometrical shape called the trapezoid.
Now, I know you have all probably heard arguments for and against the NHL having the trapezoid, but the arguments against the trapezoid far outweigh those for it.
Remember the hybrid icing slide I showed you two slides ago?
Touch icing wasn't an issue before the lockout because goalies came out wherever they wanted and played the puck and saved the defensemen the hassle (and worry) of playing the puck when they couldn't see who was coming behind them.
Getting rid of the trapezoid and "freeing Marty" (amongst other goalies) would be the single best thing the NHL could do to eliminate injuries that occur on icing touches.
Goalies would have to be smart about how they played the puck because they could actually go wherever they wanted on their own side of center to play the puck.
But the goaltenders wouldn't have a completely free pass; they would have to deal with the repercussions from my next slide...
5. Goalies Are Fair Game While Playing the Puck Outside the Crease
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Ryan Miller. That name rings a bell; maybe because it was Miller's bell that I heard ringing.
Now, this slide might be the most controversial out of any suggestion in this list, but I promise it is the most worth while.
Getting rid of the trapezoid means that goalies can come out and play the puck in the corners and wherever else.
But that means they aren't in the net, which means they theoretically should be treated like other players.
Now, a lot of goalies will take offense to this statement after seeing the Lucic hit on Ryan Miller
But if a goalie is going to come out and play the puck outside of his crease where he is protected, the goalie should be prepared to face the same contact as regular players.
Now, I do agree that Lucic should have been served with a major penalty, as he did not stop before deciding to hit Miller after Miller cleared the puck.
But I also think that minor contact on goalies playing the puck outside the crease should be permitted, just to let the goalies know that they are just like any other player playing the puck out of the crease.
Charging and boarding penalties still need to be assessed to players who overstep their boundaries in contact with goalies, but if the contact is kept to a minimum, it should be legal.
What Can Be Implemented from These Suggestions?
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I like where the NHL is right now in terms of speed and skill.
But the strength, physicality and smartness aspects of it seems to be lacking.
Strength and physicality because we are seeing a lot of "fly-by" hits, or players simply just not making contact when they could have finished a check.
The smartness aspect of it is lacking just because the NHL has taken the decision making ability away from the players and put it in the hands of the disciplinary office and Brendan Shanahan.
Some of Shanahan's calls are great, while others are not so good.
Another thing with the smartness aspect, defensemen are being forced to play pucks that goalies would gladly play behind their own goal lines or otherwise.
Players are also being pressured to avoid the goalies playing the puck behind the net or right against the boards above the goal line.
This pressure that is placed on the defensive player to avoid the goalie while forechecking, the goalie who is playing the puck in an area that can be dangerous and the defenseman, playing the puck in an area where he cannot see the fore-checker coming, are all areas where the NHL should re-visit and see if it really needs a trapezoid or if the NHL would be better off without one.
Instead, goalies can expect a mediocre amount of contact outside the crease while playing the puck, but still be protected against players who are just on the ice to hit them while they are out of the blue paint.