Now, the best way to advance the puck is seen to be by passing, so a player with his head down is at a disadvantage already and doesn't require further punishment. He can be easily stopped with no more than incidental contact. In such cases, a crushing hit to the head (e.g., Scott Stevens on Eric Lindros) is nothing less than an attempt to injure. The common explanations – “Because he deserved it” or “Because I can” – are not good enough in this age of concussions and dementia.
What then about fighting? If hits to the head are banned, why not punches to the head? This isn't the time to re-engage the debate over fighting. Not directly. That will only distract from the more critical issue that must now be addressed. The problem of fighting, for most critics at least, isn't fighting itself. It's the consequences of fighting. To many, fighting seems out of place in sports, turning away prospective fans from a game that needs many more. To some, rather than acting as a “safety valve” to reduce further fighting, it creates increased ill will and generates more fighting. So why allow it?
What is relevant here is whether fighting relates to head injuries. Is fighting dangerous or not? Once, hockey players did their own fighting. An elbow to the nose or a slash on the arm, and – big or small; good fighter or not – a player had to right his own wrong.
Most players were bad fighters. On their skates, they wrestled, slipped and flung themselves around. It was vaudeville.
Now, most fights are between designated fighters. Each such fighter knows what he's doing, and though usually well-matched enough to be able to protect themselves, these fighters are also skilled enough to hurt each other. And questions have now arisen: Why did post-mortem studies on the brains of Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert, two brawlers of different eras, show brain damage? Why did three contemporary fighters – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – who were young and rich, and seemed to have everything to live for, die in recent months? We don't know the answers, but we know enough to know we need to find them.
The NHL rulebook is judicious in distinguishing a bodycheck to the head from other contact to the head, treating fighting as its own separate category. For an illegal check, it is necessary that “the head is targeted and the principal point of contact.” But in a fight, is the head not “targeted”? Is the head not “the principal point of contact?” Is a fist not part of the body? And in fights today, with fighters who can truly fight, what's the difference between being hit in the head by Niklas Kronwall's shoulder or Zdeno Chara's fist? This is about head injuries, not fighting's place in hockey. This is about the outrageous damage that hits to the head are doing to lives and to a sport.
Every time big changes are discussed, the same flood of examples comes forward in support of the aggrieved hitter and the historical game, and every time it steals focus from the gravity of head injuries and derails significant action. No more. The truly aggrieved is not the player or the team who receives the occasional unjust penalty. It's the player or family who has to live with years of an unfull life.
For Gary Bettman, the challenge is not to be distracted by history, by the voices of those who grew up as “hockey people,” or by the overwhelming power of the status quo. He is the central custodian of the game. If he takes on head injuries aggressively – and he must – some of his changes might be ineffective, others might be embarrassingly inept, and he might very well be mocked by fans and the media. But he and we will learn, and it is far worse to be mocked by damaged players for not doing what clearly needs to be done.
Many of these steps can be implemented this season, and with significant impact if their purpose – to prevent or otherwise minimize head injuries – is not forgotten and the rules to support that purpose are applied unfailingly. Other steps will take longer and be of greater effect, but they can be set in motion.
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