While little good can be said about Matt Cooke's blow to the head of Boston's Marc Savard, perhaps the timing was fortuitous. You see, the incident took place on the eve of the NHL General Managers meetings, which start today in Boca Raton, Florida.
According to press reports from the last NHL GM meetings, the league had appointed a committee of general managers to study the problem of head shots and make recommendations at this week's meetings. Hopefully, the dirty hit by Cooke will provide additional momentum for some kind of clear-cut change in the rules to specifically address hits to the head.
The latest incident took place Sunday afternoon in a game between the Penguins and Bruins. Savard came into the Pittsburgh zone and let go of the puck about a split second before he was leveled by either an elbow or a shoulder hit by Cooke. Savard suffered a concussion and had to be removed on a stretcher. He briefly lost consciousness and there has been no official word on when he will return to action.
To see the hit, go here.
You will never be able to eliminate head shots from hockey altogether. The game is too physical and moves too quickly for that to happen. But that shouldn't prevent the league from trying to minimize the damage from head shots and reduce the number of blows to the head and the severity of them.
The players themselves appear ready to accept some kind of rule regarding blows to the head. Sidney Crosby, arguably the games biggest star, seemed very open to a rule change and almost asked for guidance on the matter. "At some point there's got to be a clear indication from the league, because we've seen this so many times now," Crosby said after Sunday's game. "You don't like to see anyone, their own teammate or an opposing player, lay on the ice like that. That was scary."
No penalty was called on the play. The fact is, if Cooke hit Savard with a shoulder and not an elbow, he did not violate any rule in the current NHL rule book.
As of Monday, the NHL had not ruled on any suspension arising from the incident, but expect Cooke to get at least four or five games because he is considered a repeat offender by the NHL for past hits that resulted in suspensions.
Here are five changes the league can and should make right now to help limit blows to the head:
1) Make blows to the head illegal and punishable by a penalty on the ice and either a suspension and/or fine off the ice. This follows the NFL model with hits to the head. Even on plays where no penalty was called on the ice, the league should review blows to the head and issue fines and/or suspensions when appropriate and referees should be graded on their calls.
The NHL already does this for stick infractions. It has declared that players are responsible for their sticks, and if a stick hits the face of an opposing player -- whether done intentionally or not -- there is a penalty. The hope is that this will make players more conscious of avoiding hitting players in the head and reduce the overall number of head shots once players adjust to the rules. Again, the league will never be able to eliminate head shots, but they can reduce them.
All fines collected as a result of head shots should go toward research on the long-term effects of concussions on hockey players and toward advancing the treatment and prevention of blows to the head.
2) The league must educate players on head shots early and often. Once the rule is changed, the league should have officials visit every training camp and explain the new rule to all players. In addition, the NHL should work with college, major junior and youth teams in the U.S. and Canada to educate players from a young age about the dangers of head shots.
3) Hall of Famer Mark Messier has invented a new hockey helmet that is designed to minimize the impact of hits to the head. The league should work with Messier and other manufacturers to maximize the protection helmets can provide for hockey players so that when their heads do hit the ice or get hit by another player, there is less damage to the brain.
4) The shoulder and elbow pads used by NHL players today is harder than what was used in the past. Some pads can be used to hurt an opposing player, not just protect the wearer. The league should mandate the use of softer pads that will do less damage to opposing players while still offering solid protection to the player wearing them.
5) The league, the NHLPA and the NHL Alumni should create a panel to further study the long-term health effects of concussions and should work together to help formulate future league policy.
Concussions have already prematurely ended the careers of players like Pat Lafontaine, Jeff Beukeboom, Nick Kypreos and Eric Lindros. Former NHL player Reg Fleming was recently found to be suffering from head traumas related to concussions that were the likely cause of his dementia and reduced mental state later in life. Let's hope the NHL acts now before something more serious happens to a player on or off the ice.
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