It used to be that a National Hockey League player and an international hockey player were as East was to West, and the twain never met – the professional North American and the amateur European not permitted to play each other. But with the expansion of the NHL and the free flow of players from one continent to the other, the NHLer and the Olympian are now the same, and the world junior championship star of today almost certainly an NHLer tomorrow. But still, some of the rules of the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation remain polar opposite.
Consider head shots. The IIHF has a very simple, clear and unforgiving mandate: There’s no such thing as a clean hit to the head. No exceptions, no circumstantial evidence, no explanations, no grey area. If a player makes contact with an opponent’s head, he’ll be penalized to the full extent of the rules.
The IIHF goes even further. The technical wording of the penalty is “checking to the head and neck area.” More specifically, it is defined as a hit to the exposed part of the body above the shoulder pads. Any player assessed such a penalty can expect four results unconditionally: (a) a five-minute major penalty; (b) a match misconduct penalty; (c) an automatic one-game suspension; (d) an automatic review leading, perhaps, to a lengthier suspension.
Consider the recent world junior championship in Buffalo. The review process was conducted by one man –officially called the disciplinary single judge – who was in charge of analyzing every contentious play and deciding whether punishment was merited. The judge was Dan Marouelli, an NHL referee for 26 years hired by the IIHF for this purpose. Who among us could criticize his judgment? None.
Mr. Marouelli handed out suspensions to five players totalling 10 games for “checking to the head and neck area” penalties, most seriously to Slovakia’s Martin Marincin, who received a four-game banishment (the automatic one, plus an additional three games) for an elbow to the head of American Jason Zucker. Given that Slovakia played six games, this suspension represented two-thirds of the tournament for Mr. Marincin.
The overall total was unusually high, but it was a count boosted by toughened rules rather than by a tournament turned violent. As telling, Canada’s Jared Cowen – at 6 foot 6 and 227 pounds, the tallest and heaviest player at the world juniors – received no penalty for hitting to the head despite often playing against opponents nearly a foot shorter, a clear indicator that hitting to the head is not explained away by differing heights of colliding players.
Hitting to the head is a cultural phenomenon. It has nothing to do with small ice or height difference or seamless glass. It has everything to do with players and environment. There are vastly fewer head shots in international hockey because only elite players are asked to represent their country; because playing for their country is of greater importance to elite players; because tournaments are shorter and discipline easier to maintain for 10 games rather than 82; and because, most salient, players are aware of the uncompromising consequences.
The IIHF makes a point of emphasizing fair play and respect, and it has backed its position with ever-tougher rules for hits to the head. But it has never made any attempt to take checking or physical play out of the game. It’s not possible to eliminate head hits entirely, but the IIHF has reduced them significantly through clear definitions, zero tolerance and tough regulations.
Andrew Podnieks, the author of some 60 books on hockey, has worked extensively with the IIHF since 2002.