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Curbing Cheapshots: Hold Coaches Accountable, Too

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JOHN MOORE
Francois Lacasse via Getty Images

Another Stanley Cup playoff night has passed, and there's another headshot and impending suspension to discuss. The latest one: New York Rangers defenseman John Moore delivered a blindside headshot to Montreal Canadiens forward Dale Weise in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The National Hockey League's "Department of Player Safety" has already announced that Moore will have a hearing Wednesday for the hit. He will probably get the same two-game suspension that was given to Montreal's Brandon Prust for an illegal hit to New York's Derek Stepan in Game 3 of the series.

Rinse, wash, repeat. Once again, the NHL will pay lip service to taking a "tough" stand on the type of hits that are a blight on the game. Once again, nothing will change.

Apart from supervising the officials in the ECAC, I serve on the NCAA conference's concussion study committee along with the likes of Harvard head coach (himself a former NHL player) Ted Donato and the head coach of the NCAA's 2013 Frozen Four champion, Yale's Keith Allain (a former NHL and Olympic assistant and goaltending coach). We have had many lively discussions about the problems and what ought to be done to improve player safety.

Listen, there is not just one cause or one magical solution to the problem. However, there are two major pieces of the puzzle that the NHL refuses to address, and which filters down to all other levels of hockey. People emulate what they see the pros do, from youth hockey onward.

By no means are these two suggestions the be-all and end-all of stopping the vicious cycle of illegal hits and concussions -- a subject I know a thing or two about, as I suffered 26 concussions I know of during my playing and on-ice officiating careers -- but they are a good starting place.

Hold coaches accountable, too

So many hockey coaches send out mixed messages. On the one hand, they cry out for the leagues and on-ice officials to do things to make the game safer for players. They are quick to talk about players showing disrespect for the game and for fellow players when one of their own guys gets injured or narrowly escapes serious injury.

Far too often,however, the same coaches who are the most vocal in criticizing other teams' players do little or nothing to pre-empt their own players from engaging in dangerous and reckless hits. What they REALLY want is a 29-Team Rulebook where the same rules that apply to every other team do not apply to their own players.

All of my life in hockey, I've heard coaches holler "Finish your check!" at their players. They drum it home. Now, I appreciate a good, clean body check as much as anyone. I don't want to see clean hits taken out of the game.

Far too often, however, what "finish your check" really means is "Go out of your way to drill that guy any way you can." They don't emphasize showing concern for another player's safety. They don't emphasize respect. They hardly even sufficiently stress the common sense notion of not going for a hit at the expense of taking yourself out of position.

What usually happens when a player on the coach's team delivers a reckless hit and gets suspended? The coach says something along the lines of "he's a good kid," "he was just trying to make a hockey play," "the League is overreacting based on the result," etc.

There is absolutely a trickle-down effect from the NHL to the other leagues in this regard. Players and coaches alike take their cue from what they see the pros do at the top level. As a hockey lifer and the father of two sons who've inherited my love for the game, it distresses and worries me.

Quick tangent: The youth leagues may put stop signs on the back of kids' sweaters but I still see a lot of hitting from behind and hear a lot of "finish your check" demands coming from the benches.

Similarly we may give the kids cages and mouth guards, and the goalies cut-resistant underarmor, and yet how many coaches make sure their own players follow rules that have been created for their own safety?

Coaches are with their players every single day. The officials deal with them a few hours a week. As such, I believe that many coaches from the NHL are doing the game a severe disservice with the mixed messages they send about player safety and showing the same respect to an opponent they expect in return.

Here's a thought for dealing with teams whose players chronically end up on the suspension blotter: What if coaches themselves actually had more skin in the game? What if the coaches themselves started to face suspensions after, say, three incidents involving players on their team in a single season?

Having the coaches take direct responsibility might be the best way to resolve chronic problems. They do it with leaving the bench and we never (or at least rarely) have that problem any more.

Listen, I like and respect most NHL coaches. It's a tough job with a lot of pressure to win. Everyone wants to create any little advantage possible for his own team. I also understand that things happen and get said in the heat of battle. I've been there myself.

At the end of the day, however, coaches have to recognize they are currently part of the problem rather than the solution. You can't simultaneously promote a safer and more respectful game while doing nothing to keep your own house in order.

Hockey Equipment: Stop Letting the Tail Wag the Dog

Back in the 1960s, consumer advocate Ralph Nader once famously wrote of the Chevrolet Corvair and other cars that they were "unsafe at any speed." Car manufactures had little desire for economic reasons to spend money on improving safety or even adding safety features for which the technology was already easily available.

Well, the same thing goes with today's hockey equipment. The equipment manufacturers claim that they offer the greatest possible protection to the wearer and necessary in today's higher-speed game with more jarring collisions.

That's a load of bunk. In reality, it is simply more cost-efficient to manufacture the hard-shell variety than some of the still-protective alternatives that cause less damage upon contact.

The added protection that the bulky, hard-capped "Robocop" pads offer is offset by both the false sense of security they give many wearers and the increased risk to other players on the ice. As a matter of fact, today's pads are basically deadly weapons that cause too many injuries even on otherwise clean checks. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough.

What has happened in pro hockey is that the tail wags the dog. The NHL -- and the Players' Association in cooperation -- has the ability and power to be at the forefront of this issue by banning the most dangerous varieties of padding and requiring manufacturers to provide alternatives that are protective to the wearer without being hazardous to other players.

Instead, what we get is a whole lot of nothing.

The powers-that-be in the top leagues talk the talk about preventive measures to reduce concussions -- changing checking rules, increasing suspensions -- yet players keep on getting hurt. The padding issue is something that's right there under their noses. The manufacturers need the NHL's stamp of approval on their products and they aren't about to cut their noses off to spite their faces by threatening to withdraw sponsorships if the League cracks down on dangerous equipment.

If the NHL and NHLPA take the lead here, other leagues can more easily follow suit to make the game safer at all levels.

Another point: If I had my way, neck guards would remain mandatory as players rise through the ranks of junior into men's hockey. This is especially important, because of the rise of skate cuts.

Also, shot blocking has become such a heavily emphasized element of our sport. There are many players -- even at the NHL level -- who demonstrate poor and dangerous form when blocking shots. Too many players leave themselves exposed to harm's way.

As an aside, it was the late Philadelphia Flyers defenseman and assistant coach Barry Ashbee who taught me the proper way to block shots. I was already playing at the collegiate level and then the minor pro leagues before I had the correct form one hundred percent down pat as a habit. Start early with this instruction, hockey coaches, because your young players will especially need to know it as they rise into higher levels.

I am someone who has always believed in players' choice when it comes to certain aspects of equipment. However, I am not totally on board with Don Cherry and other turn-back-the-clock types.

In today's game, things like good mouth guards and neck protection should be common sense. I did not wear a helmet -- much less a visor -- as a player or referee but I NEVER questioned the toughness of anyone who chose a more protective helmet and a face shield. For example, I had immense respect for the quiet toughness of someone like Ray Bourque, who wore a visor.

Players can be re-educated about safety issues and adapt to padding requirements. It takes time and it takes a League and a union willing to actually do something to take common sense measures. Again, the highest chance for success is if the NHL takes the lead, and then it can and will quickly filter downward to the other levels of hockey.

But, hey, what do I know?

******

Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.

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