After he was on the receiving end of a big, open-ice hit in Saturday's 2-0 win over the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs centre Matt Stajan knew he would become the NHL's latest poster boy in the seemingly never-ending headshot debate.
But he didn't exactly attempt to sidestep the controversy on Monday before the Leafs game against the Buffalo Sabres.
"It was a headshot - it hit me flush on the head," said Stajan, who was sporting a red welt under his left eye two days after the hit from Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk.
Did the hit change his perspective on the debate?
"Well, what was my original perspective?" Stajan said, rhetorically. "Any blatant shot to the head is dangerous in any sport. I think you can't have that. Obviously. He intended to hit me hard, maybe he didn't want to hit my head, but it's like in football, a headshot's a headshot.
"I guess we don't have a rule in our league yet, but I felt the pain of it so obviously my opinion's going to be a bit swayed one way over the other."
Boychuk's hit was - by the letter of the NHL's current law - legal, and he went unpenalized afterward even after Stajan stayed down on the ice and his teammates leapt to his defence. The debate in hockey circles these days, however, is over what should constitute a legal check and whether, given growing research showing the long-term damage concussions can cause, hits to the head should be off limits in the league.
It's a conversation that has ballooned to involve everyone and that has lately pitted one neurologist against Hockey Night in Canada icon Don Cherry.
Stajan, the Leafs player rep with the NHLPA, admitted that Boychuk's bodycheck was not unlike a lot of hits you see in the NHL, but said that shouldn't mean it always remains legal going forward.
"Looking at it, yeah, I had my head down, I was looking at a pass and turned up and there he was," Stajan said. "But he got me in the head, he left his feet … I think it should be the ref's discretion whether it's intent for the head.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that was intent because who knows, but I know he was trying to hit me hard and he caught my head so…"
His voice trailed off, perhaps realizing the potential headlines that could come from his words.
"I'm kind of in the middle," Stajan said. "You see hits like that all the time, it was open ice, at the end of the day, I turned into it with my head down and got hit pretty hard.
"No one wants to see anyone get injured, especially when it comes to the head. You don't know what kind of damage it does, the effects it could have after your career. You look at football, they have a helmet-on-helmet rule, it's never intentional… but when it happens, it's a penalty. There's ways you can put in rules."
Stajan, who will be in the Leafs lineup tonight against Buffalo, ended his thoughts on the issue trying (and struggling) to find that tricky middle ground - the line between keeping physicality in hockey and yet protecting his noggin.
"I think hitting's a part of the game," he said. "I just think guys have got to be more cautious maybe when a guy's in a vulnerable position, you know, do not make impact with the head first, which is what happened [to me]"
Head injuries in hockey
- The proof: NHLer's condition linked to concussions at time of death
- The man: Reggie Fleming's story
- Video: Reggie Fleming interview
- Usual Suspects: Fleming's diagnosis should serve as wakeup call
- Brain damage: Building a better helmet
- Staring early: Minor hockey gets serious about safety
- Graphic: Anatomy of a concussion
- Speaking out: Stajan speaks out on headshots