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Head Hits Hurting Hockey

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The issue of head shots is supposed to be up for discussion this week when NHL general managers meet in Toronto. Instead of talking about it, it's high time the NHL did something about it.

You don't have to dig very deep into the headlines to see the effect these high hits are having on the NHL. Monday the league suspended Calgary's Curtis Glencross three games for a shoulder blow to the head of New York Rangers center Chris Drury in Saturday's game between the Rangers and Flames. Drury is out indefinitely and will almost certainly miss a lot more than three games. No penalty was called on the play.

The time has come for the league to act. In the future, all blows to the head should result in a penalty and a suspension and/or a fine.

Traditionalists argue that if we penalize head shots, we will be further compromising the physical aspect of hockey, which has already been reduced by the recent rule changes enacted after the lockout. The game moves too quickly, they say, and there just isn't time for players to think about preventing blows to the head.

Other sports have already proved that this argument is not true. The NFL has enacted similar legislation banning blows to the head. In fact, the powers that be in the NFL have gradually increased the number of banned actions. They started with head-to-head hits and have since made it a penalty to hit an opposing player in the head with your shoulders or forearms.

In football, the action also moves quickly. Wide receivers, for example, are very vulnerable when they go up to catch a pass, especially over the middle of the field. Defensive players have only a split second to determine whether a player caught the ball and how they should make a tackle.

Few people would argue that the NFL is not a tough league anymore because they have attempted to reduce blows to the head. The NHL would also not be any less tough if it passed similar measures.

The main concern here has to be the health of the players. Today's hockey players are bigger, heavier and skate faster than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago. The impact of collisions is therefore greater than it was in the old days.

Back then, little was known about the effect of concussions. But many recent studies, including one by Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, have demonstrated a strong link between repeated concussions and significant problems later in life ranging from severe headaches and depression to early dementia and other Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Research has found that concussions are cumulative. Each successive occurrence is usually worse than the one before and leads to more and more significant damage to the brain.

Many fine NHL careers have already been shortened by concussions. Eric Lindros never had the superb career he was expected to because he was slowed by repeated concussions. He went from superstar to role player and was forced to retire early. His brother Brett, a first round pick of the Islanders in 1994, played in only 51 NHL games and was finished playing at the age of 21 due to the effects of blows to his head. Players like Nick Kypreos and Jeff Beukeboom also retired prematurely because of post-concussion syndrome.

The NHL has always been slow to take actions to protect players. Historically, it goes against the culture of the sport. Taking precautions and adding protection was initially considered un-manly in hockey circles. Eventually, however, changes arrived and were accepted.

Most goalies didn't wear masks during games until the late 60s. Now, if a goalie's mask falls off, the whistle is blown immediately and play stops.

Helmets for skaters weren't made mandatory until 1979 and even then the rule was grandfathered so that players who had signed a pro contract prior to then could continue not wearing head gear. The rule was not changed until 11 years after Minnesota's Bill Masterton died a few days after hitting his head hard on the ice in a game back in 1968.

Now, players wouldn't imagine playing without a goalie mask or a helmet, but there was resistance from the old guard when these changes first took place.

The NHL has already passed a rule saying players are responsible for their sticks. If a player's stick hits another player in the face, a penalty is assessed whether the hit was deliberate or completely accidental. This is done to protect of the players' eyes and faces. A similar standard needs to be put in place for blows to the head.

There are other things players and owners can agree on to reduce the number of concussions suffered by NHL players. Making shoulder pads softer is one thing and using improving technology in mouth guards and helmets are another. But none of that should prevent a change in the rules and the way the league hands out suspensions and fines for blows to the head.

This is a workplace-safety issue. A serious and potentially life-changing injury can be prevented, but only if the NHL's powers that be act now.

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