Headshots and Us

This ran in Friday’s “Committed Indian”:

On December 20th, Marcus Kruger suffered a concussion thanks to the high hands of Derek Engelland of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The check occurred about halfway through the first period.  Kruger finished the period and even came to the Hawks bench for the start of the second.  It was widely reported that Kruger was taken out of the game after he failed to respond to Joel Quenneville calling his name multiple times.

Just six days later – even though if you suffered a similar type of concussion, any doctor worth his salt would recommend you avoid all types of physical activity for at least thirty days – he was deemed healthy enough to participate in a NHL game.  Obviously, the medical advice given to professional athletes – as opposed to the general populous – is going to be vastly different when millions of dollars are at stake, but the point remains the same: no longer are concussions to be taken lightly.

When the NHL re-wrote Rule 48 at the end of last season, it was done with the sole purpose of reducing the amount of hits targeted at a player’s chrome dome.  The rule states very plainly: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.”

Just like Rome wasn’t built in one day, changing how players play isn’t something that’s going to change over one off-season.  Players are still getting concussed at an alarming rate, teams are losing important pieces to their puzzle, and owners are paying players who aren’t playing.

For the league, the banning of headshots is a fuzzy mix of logic.  On one hand, it is bad to check someone in the head, as Rule 48 clearly states.  On the other, the same player is within his rights to punch someone else in the head.

So headshots are bad, except when they are good.  Got that?  Good.

Naturally, the headshot likely to sideline Kruger indefinitely came on one of those grey-area (no pun intended) plays.  During the Monday night tilt against Columbus, Rick Nash dumped the puck into the Hawks zone.  After he released the puck, Kruger checked Nash into the Hawks bench.  Nash turned around, gave Kruger a shove and for good measure followed it with a punch to the back of the head.  Nash was penalized two minutes for roughing.  However, since punching to the head is not protected under Rule 48, Nash will never have to face Brendan Shanahan.  Just like David Krejci didn’t have to face him after he gave Sidney Crosby a jab to the face that knocked him out indefinitely.  Just like Daniel Carcillo was knocked out indefinitely with an elbow to the mouth courtesy of Kyle Brodziak.

While Nash should certainly face some kind of discipline for knocking a player out with a punch where the head was targeted and was the principal point of contact, he won’t because of some kind of ancient hockey code that permits headshots so long as the other guy deserved it.  And so it continues.

But while the concussion problem persists, does anyone really care?

Joel Quenneville was more perturbed that Engelland didn’t get a two minute minor than he was about Kruger missing any length of time.  It’s fun to be outraged by the lack of respect among the players, but the same ex-coaches on television screaming about it are the same guys who were benching every player who didn’t finish their check (Mike Keenan, who are you crapping?).  Then, there are stories of guys like Colby Armstrong who deliberately lied to the training staff so he could continue playing.  Only after the game, when he started throwing up and couldn’t answer the most basic of questions, did they realize something was wrong.

And to keep it even closer to home, we still continue to search for a good reason why not only was Marcus Kruger allowed to play on Monday against Columbus, but was allowed to play the entire game even after taking three huge hits in the opening period.  Even if Kruger was misleading the medical staff before the game, how did anyone on that medical team think he should be allowed to play after Nash punched him in the back of the head?  After the first check where Aaron Johnson got a good piece of his head along the boards, he should have been questioned.  After Nash’s punch in the back of the head, he should have been off the bench, in the dark room, and been made to pass every single test before they let come back out.  Instead, he played the rest of the game and is now out (seemingly) indefinitely.

So if the players don’t care, the coaches don’t care, and the teams don’t care, should we?  This is a slippery part of the equation.  Do any of us really care what Marcus Kruger’s quality of life is thirty years down the road?  Probably not.  We’re only concerned with how he matches up with Detroit’s top line or how long the Hawks can play with him out of the lineup.

In order to deal with the concussion problem, the league first needs to decide if they even care about the problem.  In the NFL, a player who throws a punch is automatically kicked out of the game.  In the NHL, a player who throws a punch gets away with it, is given a two minute or a five minute penalty and is beloved by the faithful home crowd.  Meanwhile, the recipients of punches to the head are suffering the same kind of injuries the league is trying to eliminate.  So, concussions are bad when they come courtesy of body checks, but a concussion courtesy of a punch just means the player had it coming.

If they truly care about the problem’s effects, then they need to fix the problem.  Educate the players; educate the coaches; and make sure any unsolicited punches to the head are punished by more than a mere two-minute minor.  And for heaven’s sakes, let the fans get back to worrying about what’s really important: figuring out who the Hawks should acquire to replace Marcus Kruger.

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4 Responses to Headshots and Us

  1. Lisa says:

    I don’t know much about concussions, and it sounds like you do, so here’s something I’ve been wondering. Kruger flew to New York with Stalberg, Hammer, and (I think) Lepisto for the Christmas break. Stalberg flew out on 12/22 according to his Twitter feed. If they flew out together or even at roughly the same time, that would have Kruger flying a couple days after suffering the concussion and then again a couple days after that back home. I seem to recall that flying with a concussion is not advisable because it can make symptoms worse, etc. My questions then: might flying so soon after the hit made a seemingly okay Kruger worse upon returning? Should the Hawks organization have asked him not to take the trip or something?

  2. John says:

    I’ll find out about if the flight would worsen his conditions, but as far as what the organization could have done….if memory serves, the team really can’t tell a player what they can and can’t do in their spare time unless it’s already stated within the player contract. They may have advised him not to take the flight, but it wouldn’t have stopped him if he really wanted to go.

  3. Deborah says:

    Just finished reading Adam Proteau’s ‘Fighting The Good Fight, Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing Hockey.’ Chapter 6 – ‘Hockey On The Brain’ is an excellent read on the sport and head injuries.

  4. Deborah says:

    John Branch of The New York Times has won the January Sidney Award for his series on the untimely death of Derek Boogaard, a hockey enforcer who died of an overdose after a two-year struggle with cognitive deficits, depression and addiction.
    http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/thesidney/backstory/john-branch

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