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In wake of Marian Hossa hit, NHL needs to address head shots

Updated: February 20, 2013 8:26PM

Maybe Vancouver’s Jannik Hansen really was just reaching for the airborne puck when his forearm smacked into the back of Marian Hossa’s head, knocking the Blackhawks star to the ice face-first, as Hansen contended.

Maybe Hansen had no intention of going for the puck at all, as Hawks captain Jonathan Toews saw it.

Maybe, as Canucks coach Alain Vigneault so delicately put it, “Stuff happens.”


Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

Hansen hit Hossa in the head — blindsided him, no less. End of story. That’s the only thing that truly matters. Intentional or unintentional, purposeful or accidental, vicious or incidental, injurious or inconsequential, a head shot is a head shot. And all head shots, regardless of intent or situation, should be considered unacceptable by the NHL.

And no matter how you saw Hansen’s hit — Hawks fans saw it as a malicious, pre-meditated attack, Canucks fans saw it as an innocuous hair tousle — a one-game suspension, as Hansen received Wednesday, isn’t going to scare the rest of the league straight. A hit to the head always deserves more than a slap on the wrist.

How many players do we have to see prone on the ice before the NHL institutes a zero-tolerance policy? How many stars — think Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Chris Pronger, Marc Savard — have to miss months or more at a time before we decide to better protect players? See what the NFL is going through, all the retired player lawsuits? That’s coming to the NHL sooner than you think.

Rule 48, astoundingly not added to the rulebook until last season, states that “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head, where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact, is not permitted.” A minor penalty is the punishment, with further discipline at the league’s discretion. The rule, however, makes it a judgment call, where some head shots are OK and some aren’t, depending on “the circumstances of the hit.” The point is valid — sometimes a player puts himself in a bad position, and gets hit in the head as a result. But the result is unacceptable — still too many hits to the head, still too many severe head injuries, still too many gray-area hits.

That leads to mind-boggling comments like the ones from Vigneault on Tuesday night.

“It wasn’t even a penalty,” he said. “Both referees looked at the play, and until Toews went out to talk to them, it wasn’t even a penalty.”

When asked if he expected Hansen to be disciplined for the hit, Vigneault said: “Not a chance. Not a chance. He’s trying to grab a puck in the air. It’s unfortunate if a young man is hurt. [But he’s] trying to jump to get the puck. Stuff happens.”

That cavalier attitude toward a potentially serious injury is everything that’s wrong with the NHL mind-set. It’s a pre-concussion era, Neanderthalic line of thought — the idea that it’s a violent game for manly men, and if you can’t deal with the risks, go play badminton instead.

Please. Do you think outlawing all hits to the head will take the toughness out of hockey? Tell that to Brent Seabrook, who took a slap shot to his nether regions, then came back and played two more periods. Tell that to Johnny Oduya, who took a shot off his face and returned. Tell that to Toews, who was cross-checked face-first into the crossbar by Keith Ballard on Tuesday night, then got up and kept playing.

Being a tough league with a dash of violence is one thing. Having nearly 100 players lose some 1,700 man games to head injuries, as the league did last season according to the CBC, is another. The league is built on stars and skill and toughness, not violence. Even Raffi Torres — the guy who gave Hossa a concussion last April with a vicious, illegal hit to the head — gets that.

“If I want to keep playing in this league, I’m going to have change the way [I play],” he said earlier this month.

And if the NHL wants to protect its stars and its image, it needs to change the way it officiates. Zero tolerance, with no gray area, is the only way to go. You put a guy’s career in jeopardy, the league puts your career in jeopardy. End of story.

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