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Jamie Heward of the Tampa Bay Lightning is taken off the ice on a stretcher after being checked into the boards in this Jan. 1, 2009 file photo in Washington. (Luis Alvarez/The Canadian Press)
Jamie Heward of the Tampa Bay Lightning is taken off the ice on a stretcher after being checked into the boards in this Jan. 1, 2009 file photo in Washington. (Luis Alvarez/The Canadian Press)

Taking action on hockey headshots Add to ...

Hockey Canada, the governing body for amateur leagues, is convening a summit to discuss player safety as a public outcry grows over violent headshots at all levels of the sport.

The move follows high-profile injuries and studies that show successive concussions from hits to the head can seriously damage the brain.

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Meantime, two senior Canadian politicians with hockey-rich backgrounds, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Liberal MP Ken Dryden, on Tuesday added their voices to the rising chorus of concern over these debilitating hits.

The MPs, who played college level- and NHL level-hockey respectively, emphasized they were responding to questions as individuals not policy makers, and said they saw no role for Ottawa in the issue.

Yet at the same time, Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Dryden said that tolerance of hits to the head in hockey has got out of hand and the game must change.

"When I go to Leafs games or Oshawa Generals games, I see a fair number of high hits," said Mr. Flaherty, who specialized in head injury cases when he practised law.

"It just has to become the culture in hockey, at all levels … that hitting someone high is not acceptable."

The debate over how to reduce the number of shots to the head was reignited last week after a hit from Quebec Major Junior Hockey League star Patrice Cormier. On Jan. 17, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies forward delivered an elbow to the head of Quebec Remparts defenceman Mikael Tam that left him convulsing on the ice. Mr. Cormier, captain of Canada's silver-medal-winning 2010 world junior hockey team, has been banned from playing for the balance of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season and playoffs.



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The Hockey Canada summit could take place as early as mid-February, coinciding with the opening week of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. It will also review the NHL's role in future Olympic competitions. The meeting would be the second such gathering in 11 years, the last one being the 1999 Open Ice Summit.

"Somehow, we have to get rid of hits to the head at all levels," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "When you start to talk to the doctors on concussions, it's not just there in a few players. It's there in too big a percentage of players at all levels."

Mr. Nicholson praised Quebec Major Junior Hockey League president Gilles Courteau for the terms of Mr. Cormier's suspension, which follows a season-long ban for Erie Otters' forward Michael Liambas imposed by Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch. Mr. Liambas, 20, received his suspension for a hit on the Kitchener Rangers' 16-year-old Ben Fanelli.

"Hopefully, these messages from the Canadian Hockey League start to sink in and filter down through minor hockey," said Mr. Nicholson, adding that Hockey Canada is reviewing the matter of head shots with all of its minor hockey referees-in-chief "to see how big of an issue it is - and if it's gaining momentum or not."

Mr. Flaherty, who once played hockey for Princeton University, said the tone must also be set by the game's top athletes in the National Hockey League. "The NHL has to lead by example."

The finance minister said players, especially those who deliver headshots, should pay a visit to those suffering from brain trauma.

"It wouldn't hurt for players who are inclined, or have demonstrated a tendency to make these kind of hits, to go and meet with some head-injured teenagers and head-injured children and just see how serious it is," the Tory MP said.

Mr. Dryden, a former NHL goalie, said the league should take the extraordinary step of assuming all hits to the head are "intent to injure" actions that carry more serious penalties than other infractions. This would put the onus on offending players to "disprove that assumption - as opposed to the other way around."

He predicted that lawsuits from injured players against hockey organizations could spur changes.

Hockey Canada's Mr. Nicholson said if minor hockey doesn't seem to be responding to the head-shot issue, "then hopefully we can put other measures in to get control of the situation - because we have to get it removed from the game in some manner."

He added he believes the public, as a result of all the controversies, no longer supports allowing hits to the head. However, many hits to the head are still considered "legal" in the NHL and thus go un-penalized even if they result in serious injury.

Quebec's Minister of Education, Sports and Leisure, Michèle Courchesne, told the sports network RDS that the government is carefully monitoring the level of violence in hockey. She said the province won't hesitate to intervene if gratuitous violence showed signs of being tolerated, arguing that coaches should be required to address the issue.

In Ontario, Paul Miller, the Ontario New Democratic Party critic for recreation and sport and a former minor league hockey player, called for tougher penalties, including criminal charges for those who repeatedly and deliberately try to injure opponents.

With files from Rhéal Séguin and Karen Howlett

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