Saturday, November 11, 2006

Head Hunting

After this recent Raffi Torres hit on Jason Williams that knocked the Detroit winger out cold before he even hit the ice...

...some, most notably Bobby Orr have called for a ban on all shots to the head.

Headshots: Bobby Orr ratchets up the debate
"I don't want to see hitting taken out of the game, I love hitting in hockey," Orr told TSN, "but if someone puts his shoulder into a player's face, if he puts anything -- an arm, an elbow, a glove -- I think that player should get a penalty. Definitely, it should be a penalty. We are having players getting knocked unconscious before they even hit the ice and carried off on stretchers. How can that be legal? When did hitting someone in the head with your shoulder or any part of your body become part of the rules? Anything above the neck, it's wrong.

"Hey, I got hit a lot when I played and I didn't get hit in the head with checks," said Orr, the legendary defenceman who is now the head of his own player representation firm. "Players didn't always hit like that. To me, that's not part of bodychecking. I mean, don't you have to be responsible for your actions? If you hit a guy in the face with your stick by accident, you're going to get a penalty. Two minutes, four minutes, five minutes, something. If you go to bodycheck a guy and you hit him in the face or head, and injure him, that's legal? That's fair? That's not a penalty? I'm sorry, I don't think that is right. It should be a penalty."

In the Ontario Hockey League this season, it is. Checking a player and making contact with the head, incidental or otherwise with the shoulder or any other part of the body, is now a penalty. Two minutes for any contact with the head; five minutes if it's with intent to injure or results in injury.

"We just felt it was time to take the next step," OHL commissioner David Branch told TSN [...]

Orr vehemently maintains the types of hit that felled Letwoski, Downey and Williams weren't the norm when he played. So there is the issue of how hits are delivered. It's a subject San Jose Sharks' GM Doug Wilson has thought about often.

Like Orr, Wilson was an NHL defenceman of some note. Like Orr, he played the game for most of his career without a helmet. Wilson retired as a player in 1993 and he says he has noticed a change in how many bodychecks today are delivered. It's an "angle," Wilson said, that can't be overlooked.

"I love hitting in hockey, I think it's a critical element of our game and not one I would ever want to see minimized or taken out of the game," Wilson said. "But I have noticed that a lot of players now are hitting 'up' with their shoulder instead of driving straight through the opponent. I think any hit where a player leaves his feet, it should be penalized. And if a player leaves his feet after making the hit, well, what does that tell you? It tells you that player wasn't trying to hit through the player, he was trying to hit high. It's the elevation I have a problem with. Big hits are a part of the game, so are injuries. It's unfortunate when a player gets hurt on a hard hit but so long as a players' feet stay on the ice, as long as he drives his shoulder straight into the other player, I have no problem with that, even if there's an injury. But if the player is coming out of his skates, if he's driving 'up' into the other player, that should be a penalty."

Wilson may be on to something here. It may well be that many of the players in today's game are launching themselves at a 45 degree angle. You don't have to be a math major or geometry whiz to know what happens when a player's shoulder is rocketing up at a 45 degree angle towards a human head that is often at a 90 degree angle. It's called intersection. Violent intersection.

Certainly, in the case of the Regehr and Torres hits, the players were driving their shoulder "up" into Downey and Williams, respectively.

Hitting "up" in the NHL has become an accepted manner of hitting. Perhaps it shouldn't be. It hasn't always been that way.

Hitting in the NHL today may be analogous to boxing.

In the sweet science, body blows have always been used to wear down and weaken an opponent's will. That is the hockey equivalent of bodychecking.

But in boxing, when you want to deliver a knockout punch and put your opponent down and out on the canvas, you go for the headshot. And what punch is the most dangerous knockout punch? An uppercut, delivered at a 45 degree angle at the opponent's jaw and one that seemingly comes out of nowhere because the victim often never sees it coming. Clearly, hitting "up" in the NHL is the hockey equivalent of a vicious uppercut, designed to deliver a knock-out blow.

"I really think we have the rules in place to police this," Wilson said. "We have supplementary discipline. We also need to be looking at things like fixing the equipment, the shoulder pads, and this is an issue that we should continue to discuss and talk about."

As for this issue of hitting "up" it may go a long way in explaining why Orr believes the hits we see today weren't as prevalent in the NHL game both he and Wilson played, when bodychecking was more shoulder on shoulder or shoulder on chest.

"I saw Johnny Bucyk hit guys coming out from behind the net (like Detroit's Williams did on Wednesday) and he hit them hard with his shoulder and he didn't hit them in the head, he just went straight at them," Orr said. "I just don't know when it became okay to hit a guy in the head and call it a clean, legal hit. I really don't."
I agree completely with Orr. Purposeful shots to the head whether it's with a stick, elbow or shoulder should be banned. Even the NFL has come to realize the need to ban such hits to protect the careers and maybe even the lives of it's players. Sadly the NHL hasn't. Hopefully it won't take the paralysis or death of one of it's players for it to wakeup.

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