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A Rush of Blood to the Head

May 3, 2010

[Photos courtesy AP Images]

Let’s go back to the start: March 7, 2010 — The Boston Bruins, playing on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins, lose their first line center Marc Savard after a questionable hit from Penguins grinder Matt Cooke.

Savard had just taken a shot from above the circles when Cooke raised his shoulder and struck Savard in the head. Savard was on the ice for several minutes, being attended to by a Penguins team doctor, before being carried off. He would be diagnosed with a Grade 2 concussion.

The Bruins were livid.

“A guy like that has to be suspended,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said. “That’s the way I see it because it’s an elbow to the head from the blind side, and that’s exactly the example they show, what we’ve got to get out of this game.”

No suspension came, and for a while, Boston was up in arms.

Flash-forward to Saturday, May 1 — Savard, after weeks of rehabilitation, finally makes his triumphant return to the ice, scoring the game-winner in the Bruins’ 5-4 overtime thriller against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Sounds like a storybook ending. But the sad truth is that this is more of the exception, rather than the rule. Far too often the NHL has seen some of its premier talents have their careers ended abruptly due to concussion problems. Players such as Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau all saw their time in hockey cut short because of concussions in what would have otherwise been long and productive careers.

The reality is that concussions will more than likely always be part of the game. But what’s curious is that there had been an overwhelming spike of blind-side hits and concussions this season; so much so that it finally prompted the NHL to enact a new rule prohibiting “a lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact.”

In addition to Cooke’s hit on Savard, this season, the following hits had left players with concussions or other injuries and left others clamoring for rule changes:

Oct. 21, 2009: Vancouver Canucks’ Willie Mitchell steps out of the penalty box and sees Chicago captain Jonathan Toews skating up ice, looking the other way to accept a pass. Just as the puck arrives, so does Mitchell, and he catches Toews from his blind side, shoulder to shoulder. Toews misses just over two weeks with a concussion.

Oct. 24, 2009: Florida’s David Booth misses 45 games after Flyers captain Mike Richards catches Booth high with his shoulder. Booth is taken off the ice on a stretcher. This was arguably the most devastating hit of the season.

Mar. 17, 2010: Blackhawks’ defenseman Brent Seabrook is rammed into the boards by Anaheim defender James Wisniewski. Seabrook hovers for a bit, before collapsing to the ice. This seems to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and snapped the NHL governors out of their slumber.

The hits were plays that were legal at the time, but will no longer be tolerated under the league’s new policy.

Just what exactly was the cause for the up-tick in these devastating blind-side hits? What could have possibly changed? The rink hasn’t changed in size, but what has changed over the years is the size and speed of the players on the rink, as well as the equipment. Some pieces of hockey equipment are reinforced with materials you typically find on members of a SWAT team.

NHL Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell has even said that he wouldn’t even be able to fit today’s shoulder pads into the equipment bags from his playing days.

“The equipment has gotten much larger and we’re to the point now where it’s like goalie equipment; when does it protect and when does it injure, or with goalie equipment when does it protect and when does it increase stopping?” Campbell said. “Those are some of the issues with the head hits, but the other issue is when you play 1,400 games a year with playoffs and exhibition combined with a season you’re going to have a couple of these things with the size of our players and the speed of the game now. You try to make the game safe, but you can’t totally get rid of hitting.”

Part of the reason the number of blind-side hits may have escalated lately is an unintended side-effect of the league’s desire to open up the game following the lockout in 2005. With the neutral zone no longer a black hole of clutching, grabbing and hooking, players now have the freedom to create offense and generate speed. But instead of defending players keeping pace with the north-south game, they are simply resorting to coming in from the side, usually ending with brutal results.

It’s simply a matter of physics. When two bodies collide, they don’t bounce off each other; the kinetic energy is transferred to bones, tissues and organs, and the player with the least stored energy often will receive the brunt of the damage from the hit.

A concussion occurs when the brain makes contact with the side of the skull. Regardless of how much padding a player has, if there’s enough force present, the brain is going to get rattled. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about a concussion is that there is no streamlined way of dealing with it because everybody recovers differently.

This is no longer a matter of coaches telling players to keep their heads up. There were moments during Savard’s recovery when reporters were seriously asking Savard if he was considering retirement as an option. I don’t doubt for a second that it didn’t cross his mind at least once. Not all hockey players have received post-secondary education, but most of them are smart enough to know that there comes a time when hanging up the skates in favor of being wheeled around for the rest of their life is a much better career choice.

On the other side of the coin, there is an understanding that there is an element of physicality associated with the NHL, and to remove that would be borderline sacrilege. The ability to make a clean, open-ice hit is a highly sought-after commodity on the open market. It’s why Anton Volchenkov, a player who this year set a career-high four goals is expected to command top dollar if he chooses to pursue unrestricted free agency this summer.

Players and owners alike both need to realize that the purpose of bodychecking is done with the purpose of separating the puck from the puck-carrier, not to injure. If a day comes when that role changes, then the NHL will have committed a serious error.

Since the rule changes went into effect, there have been 135 regular season games played under the new system, plus the ongoing playoffs. It will be interesting to see how the NHL uses these games as a litmus test going forward into next year. Under the new rules Campbell has the power to suspend players for blind-side hits. One playoff game is typically worth four or five in the regular season when it comes to suspensions. Many are anxiously waiting to see how Campbell will react to the first blind-side head shot incident.

People seem to forget that the NHL is an entertainment industry. But that entertainment should not come at the expense of its employees’ well-being. After all, at the end of the day, it’s just a game.

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