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Tough sport, but no head shots Add to ...

There are, as Canadians continually forget, two officially recognized national sports in this hockey-mad country.

Lacrosse is the other one.

And just perhaps, in this time of greater hockey madness than most winters, the one national game has a lesson to pass on to the other national game.

Lacrosse, or baggataway, as it was once known, is no stranger to violence and injury. Blood runs from the game's role in the capture of Fort Michilimackinac nearly 250 years ago to recent decades in the lacrosse boxes of small-town and suburban Canada. I grew up in one such community myself - Huntsville, Ont. - where hockey was the winter game, lacrosse the summer game, and lacrosse considered the tougher of the two sports to survive.

But no more. Something happened in recent years that has seen a flip-flop between the two national games, with lacrosse dealing with its violence and injury issues and hockey seemingly without the foggiest notion of what to do - even the answer is as obvious as simply saying no, no more.

The National Lacrosse League - as well as various other lacrosse organizations - long ago moved against hits to the head because, as John Tavares, one of the game's all-time greats, says, "It was simply getting out of hand.

"It was common for players to go for the head," says the NLL's career scoring leader. "I've personally taken my own shots at other guys. It had to stop."

The league now has Rule 77 dealing with "dangerous contact to the head" and a myriad of other rules and regulations that have dramatically changed the way the game is played around the head, without significantly affecting how it is played around the net.

A player who dangerously strikes another in the head or neck is considered to have engaged in "egregious conduct." Not only is it a major penalty, but on first offence the player is given a one-game suspension and fined $1,000.

A $1,000 fine for a professional lacrosse player is roughly the equivalent of an NHLer crashing his Hummer through the front window of his Muskoka cottage.

As well, all players are required to wear a proper helmet, facemask and chin guard. Mouth guards are also compulsory. And you do up your strap, tightly, in lacrosse - or else.

There are strong penalties against high-sticking in the head area, elbowing and boarding. The strict rules cannot prevent all head injuries - two Canadians in the NLL, the Philadelphia Wings' Merrick Thomson and the Colorado Mammoth's Dan Carey have missed long periods because of concussion - but they are most certainly a long step forward when compared to hockey's seemingly frozen ability to act.

"I think it's great," says Mr. Tavares, who stars for the Buffalo Bandits. "When you consider the number of head shots we see in all sports, it's obviously out of hand."

Putting an end to such hits isn't only for the benefit of the players, he says, but for their families and whatever work they do when not playing lacrosse. The 42-year-old Mr. Tavares is himself a high-school math teacher in Mississauga and knows only too well the effects of concussion. He has been through it twice.

"It's not fun," he says. "Once you've had one, the symptoms return easier each time. Last weekend, I got hit a couple of times - head-to-head collisions during play - and my vision in my left eye began to go blurry. I knew what it was. It went away, but it was because of those previous concussions."

Last October, he was watching the New York Islanders' home opener against the Dallas Stars when his 20-year-old nephew, also named John Tavares, got clipped by Dallas's Adam Burish. The younger Mr. Tavares, the NHL's No. 1 draft pick in 2009, had just suffered the league's first concussion of the 2010-11 season. It was, fortunately, fairly minor; he only missed the next three games.

"I saw the hit," says the older Mr. Tavares. "It was whiplash effect more than anything else. My advice to him was simple: take your time coming back.

"One thing with concussions is that you think you're better, you're convinced you're better, and you go out and play and then, a week later, you're playing again and you realize you weren't back at all when you thought you were."

Mr. Tavares, the lacrosse player, says he learned this lesson several years ago when he felt well enough to play again and even convinced himself that, "I was well enough that I could cut through the middle again" - basically bull-ing his way toward the opposition net. "My body knew different. I shouldn't have tried. The following week I realized that now I felt 100-per-cent better than I had when I tried to convince myself I was already to play."

The solution in any game where concussions are a threat, he says, is obvious: "There should be no hits to the head."

And while the total elimination of such hits is impossible in games as fast and physical as Canada's two national sports, there are ways to reduce the number of concussions significantly.

"The penalties have to be more severe," he says. "Two minutes? That's no big deal. Five minutes? Well, some teams would be willing to take that risk, so long as it meant getting a good player out of the game. It's got to be severe.

"The National Lacrosse League has done a good job, in my opinion. Seven or eight years ago there were guys taking head shots every game - me included - and now you don't see it.

"So, No. 1 - it's good for the game."



Roy MacGregor usually appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Globe and Mail's Sports section

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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