A Closer Look

I’ve been looking at all the arguments about head shots this week, in the wake of Andrei Kostitsyn’s and Brendan Sutter’s disabling blows to the noggin.  The overwhelming consensus seems to be that the NHL needs to do *something* about it.  The question is, what? 

How often, if a ref’s eyes are on the puck, do they miss the away from the play hit entirely?  If they do see it, you wonder how they can determine what’s clean and what’s not, in the heat of battle with bodies flying so quickly a hit can seem like an optical illusion.  And entering even more vague territory, how can officials tell which high hit is intentional and which isn’t…or whether a player put himself in danger and by his position turned a clean hit into a dirty one?  The answers to those questions are just about impossible to quantify because there are just too many variables.  But I think a basic disciplinary approach must begin with the use of instant replay. 

The fact is, very often the speed of the game makes it virtually impossible for a human being to correctly process all the factors contributing to the end result of a player lying unconscious on the ice.  Listening to the complaints about head shots from coaches and GMs around the league for the last year or so, their concerns are generally deepened by the fact that many injurious hits aren’t punished with a penalty on the spot.  The referee’s stock answer is that you can’t call what you can’t see.  But the result is that players take the law out of the refs’  hands and into their own.

Take the Kostitsyn hit, for example.  Whether the hit itself was clean is still up for debate, but looking at the play a second or third time shows that Kurt Sauer probably deserved at least a two-minute boarding penalty.  He didn’t get it, and the Canadiens spent a good part of the rest of the game attempting to get even because they didn’t get justice from the ref.

I don’t see a logical reason for not using the replay to determine a penalty when there has been an injury…to the head or otherwise…and the officials have missed the play on the ice.  Remember when Saku Koivu nearly lost his eye to Justin Williams’ stick blade?  The injury itself was bad enough, but insult was the non-call on the incident.  I’m not saying the proper four-minute PP would have kept the momentum of that series going in Montreal’s favour, but it would have mollified the outrage felt by players and fans.  And the thing is, it *might* have made a difference in that game and that series.

I guess there’s potential to abuse video review for penalty calls, with players diving and faking injuries in an attempt to draw a man advantage.  But I don’t see that happening realistically.  It’s not hard to tell the difference between a guy who’s lying unconscious in the corner or bleeding from an eye wound and one who’s not.  And if there’s a question of abuse, it’s easy enough to institute safeguards, such as a player who’s determined by replay to be injured missing a set amount of time, either a period or the rest of the game, in order to be medically assessed. 

I think incorporating the replay to take a second look at plays that result in serious injury would go a long way to help institute a concrete standard for what’s acceptable and what’s not, especially with head shots.  If a referee is given a set of guidelines as to what constitutes an illegal hit to the head, he can review a play that results in an injury and take his time to determine with a clear head if that play breaks the rules.  And, the referee’s decision would be taken into account if there’s a need for further league discipline…especially if there’s a case of a single player piling up those penalties.  Refs tend to be less impressed by the name on the sweater when it comes to discipline than league officials…witness the difference between Chris Simon’s 30-game suspension for a head shot, versus Chris Pronger’s one game apiece for two separate shots in the 2007 playoffs.  I see it being the coach’s prerogative to request a review on a play like the Koivu eye injury, or the Kostitsyn hit. 

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a first step.  Perhaps if the league draws a clear set of guidelines to assist officials in making on-ice calls and the players know video review will miss fewer behind-the-play incidents, there will be fewer reckless hits.  Whatever it takes to reduce the terrible injuries that have been proven in other sports to contribute to serious illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s later in life needs to be done. 

Letting the players know Big Brother is watching and can punish them immediately can’t hurt.

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