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Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning is one of many NHL players who have spoken out against head shots. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images) (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)
Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning is one of many NHL players who have spoken out against head shots. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images) (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)

Lightning stars take stand against head shots Add to ...

Like most NHL veterans, he has his own story to tell about the issue that just won't go away.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Simon Gagné was playing for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007-08, and suffered what were originally reported to a trio of concussions but was later revealed to be just one, which hadn't properly healed.

He played only 25 games that season, and understands how debilitating the consequences of a head shot can be. It helps explain why he feels somewhat let down by the NHL's general managers and their refusal to outright ban checking to the head this week.

"Disappointed? A little, I guess," said Gagné, who played in last year's Stanley Cup final and also has an Olympic gold medal to his name. "But at least they're talking about it, which they didn't really want to do as recently as three years ago."

To Gagné, the key to making progress on addressing dangerous play is straightforward: The game's young stars, like teammate Steven Stamkos, need to speak up.

Sitting one stall over, Stamkos promptly did just that.

"The league's trying. … In my opinion, it comes down to us as players to respect our opponents. We have to be accountable for our actions," said the 21-year-old sniper, who leads the NHL with 43 goals. "The game is fast, and from an outsider's perspective things happen in the blink of an eye, but as a player you're aware, you take that extra stride, you can stop or start pretty quick and it's something that at the end of the day … we have to realize the repercussions that can happen."

Referring to Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara's hit on Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty and the concussion suffered by Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, Stamkos said: "It's just been a scary year."

"It's something that, as a young player in this league, we need more and more guys speaking out on this. We can't wait for a guy like Sidney Crosby to be out for two-thirds of the season for guys to speak up," said Stamkos, who favours stiffer sanctions and also mused about an eventual ban on all contact with the head.

After an intense off-day practice at the Bell Centre - the Lightning play the Canadiens on Thursday - the 31-year-old Gagné fretted about the effect head injuries and violent play are having on minor hockey.

He also posited that one of the reasons for a less-respectful on-ice culture is the fact the NHL is a young man's league and inexperienced, desperate players will do anything they can to make a name and stick around. But whatever the reason, he said, it has to stop.

"I think the best solution would be to eliminate all hits to the head like they're doing in football, but I'm listening to all these GMs and it's still the old school - but they're not the ones who are on the ice," said Gagné, who has suffered four concussions. "I understand that they don't want to change the nature of the game, so I guess we'll have to start protecting ourselves."

And situation, he continued, is as bad as he's ever seen - a point reinforced by three ugly head shots in games on Tuesday.

"I've been in this league 11 years, last year, I thought it was pretty incredible and this year, it seems like there's something in every game," he said. "Before you'd see hard checks in open ice, but now it's just dangerous hits - not just head shots, guys are going into the corner and the player finishes his check from behind."

The question remains top-of-mind in many NHL dressing rooms, none more than Montreal's.

Pacioretty visited with his teammates before Tuesday's 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, defenceman James Wisniewski said he told them he is ahead of schedule in his recovery.

The 22-year-old winger was joined on the injured list by top scorer Tomas Plekanec and fellow centre Jeff Halpern on Tuesday - the Canadiens sick bay, now 11 members strong, is the NHL's most densely populated.

"It gives some of our younger players an opportunity," said Montreal head coach Jacques Martin, putting a positive spin on the fact that rookie centres Lars Eller and David Desharnais will see their workload increase considerably.

Minor-league forwards Aaron Palushaj and Nigel Dawes were called up on Wednesday and could be in the lineup in a game pitting the Eastern Conference's fifth and sixth seeds, who are separated by four points.

 

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