Back in January I featured an article, “Head banging hockey”, about the head shots and concussions frequenting the game of hockey these days. Not sure if it is the media or GM meetings that just concluded last week that focused the attention, although it seems the head banging hockey is on the rise…again! So here is Part 2. Just one year ago since Rule 48 was implemented by NHL Officials. So much talk, discussion, and deliberation yet still no answers. I understand, I know, I played the game. How does the game move forward while keeping a vital part of game in tact — checking, but also protect the players today and for the future.
Just this past Sunday, Pittsburgh Penguins foward Matt Cooke, was a repeat offender of the heat shot. NHL Officials did well in handing Mr. Cooke a 10 game and 1st round playoff suspension. Of course much of the talk revolves around the world’s best travel league, but it is happening in junior and college ranks as well. One of the OHL’s best young snipers, Shane Prince of the Ottawa 67s, was a victim to the blind side hit on March 11th. Just like Cooke, OHL Officials slapped a 10 game ban on Tim Billingsley of the Niagara Ice Dogs. But is the jail time enough, especially for the repeat offenders? Perhaps this is the short term answer, although what about the longevity and integrity of the game.
The Head Shot Scenario…
OK, the picture is painted something like this: A 20 year old kid playing in the NHL, meaning he was born in 1990 or 1991 give or take. Right, right a math wizard for sure I am. Heck, I went to college to play hockey, but I also earned my degree! We will name him Johnny for names sake of the story. Come on, the main character’s name is always Johnny. It just always sounds good, little Johnny. Stay with me here.
Anyway, during the start of his young career in 2000-2001 when he entered the pee-wee level as a 10-11 year old on the outskirts of Los Angles where ice rinks were few and far between, he started to play the body. Currently in USA Hockey at the U12 age or pee-wee level, checking or body obstruction is legal. So besides catching a Kings game maybe once a year, most of his skill development was self-taught. His coach for the better part of his youth days never seriously played the game just thought coaching hockey would be great if he ever had a son. Oh ya, the coach fell in love with the game while feeding his son a bottle during the glory Gretzky days of late ‘80s and early ‘90s. As for Johnny, his scoring and skating ability developed and it was obviously enough to get recognized and play at the higher level. Eventually he left the area for juniors and was later drafted into the NHL. He also watched a boat load of media accessible to him, including highlights of fighting and bone crushing hits. Just like most youngsters do these days with YouTube and other Internet web sites only a key stroke away.
Now as we fast forward Johnny takes his shift in his rookie NHL season, he needs to make sure he earns a spot. Every night you must bring it or back to the farm and the long bus rides of the minors. The scoring touch back in juniors is perhaps a thing of the past, and he knows he must be more physical to impress the coaching staff and earn his paycheck. With 1:34 seconds left in the second period, and his team trailing by a goal and playing stagnant, it is time to start banging heads. The play develops quickly as the opposing team heads up ice on a developing 3-on-2 and he knows he can certainly not get caught out on the ice for a goal. Statistics are kept on all aspects of goals, shots, blocked shots, hits, etc., and +/- is certainly one too. He digs in and guts it out, cutting the ice with every stride to try and catch the trailing 3rd man on the rush before he blasts a one-timer from the high slot. He sees the play developing; he knows #91 will soon receive the drop pass. After all, it was his hockey sense and anticipation that made him a 3rd round selection in the entry draft two years ago. Not to mention the 6′ 3″ frame with 210 lbs. to go along with it. Number 91 also has a great scoring touch and is a proven sniper in the league, so the chances of the puck being on his stick is extremely high. His mind races with passion as thinks a big hit will catapult him on the depth chart; let alone save a late period goal. This potent collision might even earn him respect around the league after everybody sees it on Sports Center, NHL Network, or TSN highlights. The time is now, only a stride behind, but the pass is already on its way. The opposing superstar has no idea as he winds his stick to get into his shot. Johhny quickly appaoches, although coming from blind side. It worked in juniors, it worked in bantams, it worked in pee-wees so he can do it in this league too, right? The rest is history as the entire area goes silent by the shoulder/elbow to head collision, leaving the superstar flat on his back spinning like a top.
Head Shots Solution
Sure the scenario just described above is fictional, but also very realistic. I know many players, coaches, and GMs talk about the lack of respect these days in the game. Thus, when there is very little appreciation of the oppenent you will get a recipe for cheap shots. Although another interesting insight comes directly from the players not exactly knowing the rule on the blind side hit. This leads me to believe that players at the early ages are not being properly coached about all aspects of checking.
First and foremost, players need to understand the mental aspect of checking. It is certainly an important part of the game. It has always been an integral part and should always be at the older and more competitive levels. It sort of separates the men from the boys. Though do players truly fathom checking? It is supposed to separate the player from the puck — period. Not send the guy through the glass or decapitate the player. I know the compete level runs high during a game and you only have spilt seconds to act. But too many kids in youth hockey either are scared “merde”less of checking or simply the opposite. On the other side of spectrum, some players don’t even care about the puck or making a hockey play. Rather their goal is sending the other kid up to the top row of the stands through the boards. Funny isn’t it why USA Hockey is voting in June to push back the checking age to bantam (U14). So in essence, coaches need to really explain the aspect of checking; why and when it is used.
Then coaches can show players how checking is applied. Meaning the proper checking techniques like focusing on the body of the puck carrier, angling, keeping a low stance, being well-balanced, while keeping hands and elbows down. Let me say it again, while keeping hands and elbows down. Lastly, making sure to avoid checks 2-4 feet off the boards. Especially true to an opposing player with his back towards the player giving the body check.
The third and final point should also be placed on the officials. If players are used to getting away with illegal body checks at an early stage, what’s to say they will not keep doing it their entire career. Too many times I see kids at non-checking age levels (mites/novice and squirts/atom) just trying to lay kids out. I know the referees do not get paid a handsome wage and the pace of the games are far from the NHL. Get the whistle out and call it like it is! Believe me, they know what they are doing! When these kids reach the older ages, then the officials can let the kids play with hip checks and open-ice collisions legally.
Sure the players need to take ultimate ownership for their actions. This is especially honorable as the players reach advanced levels of play. Although somehow in the beginning of it all coaches and officials need to properly instruct and oversee the aspects of checking in the youth stages of players careers. So then when Johnny does make it to “The Show” he is not a menace to the game of hockey and better yet an asset.
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