If the grotesque, brain-injuring blow to the head of Boston Bruin Marc Savard last weekend was not against existing rules, as the National Hockey League insisted yesterday in opting not to suspend the player who struck the blow, it shows how bankrupt those rules are. It explains why children as young as 11 in minor-hockey leagues around Canada have been left vulnerable to repeated concussions. It has been open season on players' heads, and there has been no leadership from the game's brain trust. Some brain. Some trust.
The hit by Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins was aimed squarely at Mr. Savard's head. He delivered it directly from behind, which is against the rules; but because Mr. Savard turned slightly as he shot the puck, Mr. Cooke jolted the helpless Mr. Savard in the side of the head, not the back of it. The headshot was designed to injure, and it did; Mr. Savard, the best offensive player on his team, has a serious concussion and may be lost for the season. The blow's viciousness was exceeded only by its cowardice.
Mr. Cooke, who has been suspended twice for headshots, has done the game of hockey a favour. He targeted a player for decapitation, and was told he broke no rule. Now the NHL, which claims to have been talking about protecting the head for 20 years, has been shown to offer no protection against the most blatant attack on the brain. Surely it has no choice but to change.
It shouldn't take a brain surgeon to figure out how to take vicious, life-altering headshots out of hockey. There are 60,000 to 70,000 bodychecks in an NHL season, and roughly 20 serious blows to the head, by the league's count. Is it possible to cut those 20 out of the game while leaving the other hits alone? Of course it is. Everyone knows what those vicious headshots look like. If the league wants to, it could end them tomorrow. The league is losing its star players: Why would it want to keep those headshots?
The general managers agreed in principle yesterday on a rule to outlaw headshots from the so-called "blindside" - that is, hits that a player can not see coming because he is facing the other way. The agreement faces some hurdles before being implemented in time for next season. Presumably, more hits like Mr. Cooke's will be allowed this season.
Blows to the brain like the one delivered by Mr. Cooke do nothing to make the game more exciting. They put skill players at the mercy of headhunters. They encourage children and teenagers to do the same. And the league asks the fans to cheer all the while.
It's morally bankrupt. late though it is for Mr. Savard and his team.