The Ticking Time Bomb That Are Hits to the Head in the NHL

James EdgingtonContributor IFebruary 16, 2011

RALEIGH, NC - JANUARY 29:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference during the 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend at the RBC Center on January 29, 2011 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For those that can’t remember January 15th 1968, it was just another average day in the 60’s. Although for the family and friends of Bill Masterton, it was a day consumed by tragedy. Two days earlier Masterton took to the ice as a member of the Minnesota North Stars against the Oakland Seals in what was to be his final game.

The match was only four minutes young when the North Stars centre was skating with the puck into the Seals zone. After making a pass to his teammate Wayne Connelly, he was checked by Oakland players Larry Cahan and Ron Harris. Masterton lost his balance falling backwards, crashing head first onto the ice.

The force of the hit was so powerful it caused blood to pour from his nose and mouth.  A teammate who rushed to his aid moments before Masterton lost consciousness, heard him mutter "Never again. Never again." The former native of Winnipeg suffered a major brain hemorrhage.

The severity of his injuries meant that doctors were unable to perform surgery. Bill Masterton passed away two days after sustaining what was to be a fatal hockey check; he was 29. The Masterton Trophy is named in his honour and is awarded to NHL players for dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

Thirty-five years after Masterton’s death, one of the men partly responsible for the hit, Ron Harris, did his first and only interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2003. Harris explained how he was still haunted by what happened on January 13th 1968. "It bothers you the rest of your life. It wasn't dirty and it wasn't meant to happen that way. Still, it's very hard because I made the play. It's always in the back of my mind."

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Cahan, Harris and Masterton all played in and era when it wasn’t mandatory to wear helmets. In 1979 it was ruled that players entering the league would have to don protective headwear.

Fortunately, that was the first and only incident in the NHL that resulted in a player dieing from a body check.  Perhaps now the real concern is the increasing number of players who are enduring concussions. There are currently a total of fifteen skaters listed as having a concussion or concussion like symptoms.

During the 08-09 seasons, both Marc Savard and David Booth were sidelined with concussions as a result of severe hits to the head. The league implemented a new regulation, rule 48, to stop hits of this nature from happening. What is often referred to as the blindside rule was effective from the start of the 2010-11 campaign.

The rule is as follows: Rule 48 - Illegal Check to the Head

48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.

48.2 Minor Penalty - There is no provision for a minor penalty for this rule.

48.3 Major Penalty - For a violation of this rule, a major penalty shall be assessed (see 48.4).

48.4 Game Misconduct – An automatic game misconduct penalty shall be assessed whenever a major penalty is assessed under this rule.

48.5 Match Penalty - The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head.

48.6 Fines and Suspensions – Any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconducts under this rule, in either regular League or playoff games, shall be suspended automatically for the next game his team plays. For each subsequent game misconduct penalty the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game.

If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion.

Like all rules and regulations this one can be misunderstood, misinterpreted or even a little distorted. There will be hits that encompass the guidelines stated above, but what about dangerous checks to the head that don’t always comply with the blindside rule.

Such checks can leave a player recovering from a concussion but the opposing player faces no punishment.  He is able to continue potentially injuring opponents because he is within the NHL’s legal parameters, which means people are still getting hurt.  

Dan Hamhuis, Mathew Lombardi and the face of the NHL Sidney Crosby, are all out indefinitely because of checks that are considered to be clean. Does this not demonstrate that a very thin line exists between a safe and dangerous hit to the head? Are Commissioner Gary Bettman and his cohorts doing enough to prevent and safeguard  athletes that grace the ice?

If the league wants to use a rule as a way of sending a message to the players that any harmful contact to the head wont be tolerated, then there needs to be more consistency when penalizing players. A body check elbow or hit to the head is just that, it doesn’t matter whether there was intent to injure or the incident was lateral or from the blindside, a players safety should be paramount. 

There are people that subscribe to the theory that a player with possession off the puck should try to protect themselves and not the puck when skating near the boards. In the heat of a game a player is doing his job by trying to help his team win the ensuing on ice battle. Should individuals in that situation be worrying about their own safety?

When Dan Hamuis was recently hurt from a hit by Ducks' center Ryan Getzlaf, did Canucks coach Alain Vigneault point the finger of blame at his own player when he made these comments? "I thought it was a good hit by a big player," Vigneault said. "(Hamhuis) was watching his pass and he should have been trying to protect himself a little bit. "Some guys finish hits, some guys don't. If Hank or Danny are coming at you, maybe you can watch your pass. If Getzlaf is coming at you, you've got to have your head up."

Is the league solely responsible for the safety of players or does there need to be a greater onus given to the NHLPA, helmet and equipment manufacturers, or players’ coaches and GM's?

There is a distinct difference that separates a concussion from other injuries like a broken leg or torn ACL. A concussion is an injury to the brain the damage can often be severe enough to end careers or ruin lives.

Dustin Fink, a certified athletic trainer (ATC) working in Central Illinois believes that everyone from the league, NHLPA, equipment manufactures, players, coaches and GM’s are responsible for protecting players from serious head injuries, as it impacts players beyond repair.

“A concussion occurs when a violent blow to the head causes the brain to slam against the skull beyond the ability of the cerebrospinal fluid to cushion the impact," said Fink. "In simple terms it is a brain injury sustained by a blow either to the head or to the body resulting in traumatic unnatural forces being applied to the brain. The take home message is that the brain has been disrupted both physically and physiologically.”

His experience with concussions and MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) in athletics for 10+ years as a professional and another 8 as either a student athletic trainer or athlete himself makes him fully aware of the impacts of serious head injuries to athletes as well as what should be done to prevent future occurences. 

“It is ALL of their responsibilities, plain and simple, if you were to rank them in importance I would opine it should be this; 1. League, 2. Players, 3. Medical Staff, 4. GM's, 5. Coaches, 6. Equipment. The league sets the standards and rules, but with concussions they can happen with the cleanest of play, so it is inherent that the players stay vigilant about their condition as a concussion is a subjective injury, or "invisible" they are the only ones that know what is going on,” said Fink.

Fink explains what steps he thinks should be taken to prevent concussions as a result of hits to the head.

“The NHL needs to follow the lead of the IIHF and ban all hits to the head, period, accidental or not, any contact to the head should be avoided. Now if players fight or are hit and the result is a blow to the head that is tougher to define. What is extremely important to know is that you can sustain a concussion without being hit in the head.  The traumatic shifting of the brain case (skull) can and will elicit the physiological response that is a concussion," said Fink. "However staying away from deliberate hits to the head will be a good start.”

Fink has set up his own website called

“I started my website to give information with a small dose of opinion from an athletic trainers perspective,” said Fink. “In no means is it the be all end all of resources, but it is a place where anyone can voice an opinion and gather information from current sport stories, to neuropsychological testing, to unique data, to listings, to posts about my experiences.”

Dustin is someone who is concerned about concussions, but not overly so. He hopes his kids play contact sports when they are older. 

“I would want more than anything for my kids to participate in contact sports, like hockey and football if they choose,” said Fink.

Scott Norton is a hockey agent and President of Norton Sports Management he has such clients as Cam Janssens, Dustin Brown and Brent Sopel. Like Fink, Norton feels that it’s not just the NHL who should safeguard players.

“I think that everyone involved in the sport has a hand in not only the responsibility, but also the solution.  Like every sport, the athletes continue to get bigger, faster and stronger," said Norton. "We all have to understand that, and respect the speed and risk involved in the game of hockey.”

He thinks the league is going in the direction to reduce the risk.

“You can never prevent against every injury, and sometimes things will happen.  The one thing I would like to see is the League crack down more extensively in their punishments to those who carelessly injure others,” said Norton

Norton feels that agents should also take an interest in their player’s welfare.

“Player agents certainly have a role in this conversation, but more after any situation.  I believe we need to remember that hockey players are human beings, and it is our role to advise our clients not to risk their health and futures by playing before they are healthy enough to do so,” said Norton.

Just like slap shots breakaways and fights, checking is a fundamental part of hockey and is certainly not something that should be removed. Injuries to the head still need to be addressed further, as no one wants to witness another incident like Bill Masterton, most of all the NHL. You have to wonder though if rule 48 is about protecting the players from serious head injury, or more to protect the league from litigation.

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