As Fans Turn Away From Hockey, NHL Ducks Head-Shot Reform

Backing down a bit from its threat, Air Canada said the NHL's response last week was a "step in the right direction." Other observers weren't so sure. One thing is certain. The NHL will not be able to adequately respond to this problem if the only people looking at solutions are hockey insiders and others with a vested interest in keeping the rules as they are. In other words, the same executives and officials (and owners and general managers and analysts) who have steered the NHL into this corner are the people who now are saying "let's make sure we don't turn around too quickly." That's just not good enough--and precisely why the NHL's poll numbers are so bad.

Third Period

Here's just one example of the disconnect between the league's rationale about head shots and what fans perceive as over the line. The NHL defended its five-point plan last week in part by citing the following concussion statistics. From the league's official website,

...[A]ccording to data compiled and studied by the NHL's Hockey Operations department and delivered to the general managers, there is not empirical data to back up any suggestion that concussions and resulting lost man-games are on the rise due to illegal hits to the head.

In fact, the majority of the concussions in the 2010-11 season to date have come from legal hits or accidental contact. Forty-four percent of the concussions this season have been the result of legal hits to the head or body, while another 26 percent have come when players were struck accidentally, either colliding with another player, being struck by the puck or tripping or falling and making head contact with the ice surface or the boards.

Another 17 percent of the concussions were the result of either illegal hits to the head or illegal body checks. Also, eight percent of the concussions were caused by fighting. Five percent of the concussions were not defined because video of the incidents does not exist.

Of course, statistics can say many contradictory things at once. The NHL says these stats support its tepid response to the Chara hit. The league accomplishes this sleight-of-hand by adding the percentage number of accidents that have caused concussions (26 percent) with the percentage number of legal hits that have done so (44 percent) and concluding that illegal hits cause only a small portion of the injuries fans want removed from the game. Therefore, the NHL argues, banning head shots won't effectively solve the problem and isn't otherwise worth the risk of changing the aggression that marks the game.

But here's another way to look at those same numbers. Fully 61 percent of concussions this year in the NHL have been caused by the combination of illegal hits (17 percent) and legal ones (44 percent). That tells me (among other things) that the NHL is categorizing as "legal"  overtly dangerous hits that should instead be considered "illegal." By thus defining "illegal hits" so narrowly, the NHL gets to throw up its hands and say that unpunished head-shots are an anomaly. Bettman essentially confirmed this tautology when he called Chara's hit against Pacioretty unfortunate but part of the game. It is "a part of the game" that will result in an on-ice death if something isn't done soon.

Fans accept that accidents will always happen in sports; there will always be concussions and other serious injuries as part of the nature of the game. But they are saying in increasing numbers and with growing clarity that they will no longer tolerate a league that refuses to do all it can to avoid those concussions which are avoidable. Blithely calling a near-deadly hit a "legal' one doesn't make the problem go away. The NHL cannot be afraid of what the needed rule changes might do to "traditional" hockey play. That's like refusing to put out a house fire with a hose because you are worried about water damage to the structure. 


The response to my initial post about the NHL and the Chara hit was intense and focused. The commenters who disagreed with me essentially offered three main points. First, they howled and called me a homer because I am a fan of the Canadiens who picked a hit against a Canadien to complaint about. It's true. I picked the Pacioretty hit because it impacted me the most-- just as the ruinous hit on superstar Sidney Crosby earlier this year (he's still not playing as a result of it) might have inspired a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins to call out the league. It's not about one team or one player. It's about fans saying "enough is enough" with an officially-sanctioned culture that tolerates such dirty play 

Next, critics said that Chara's hit on Pacioretty was nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not the worst thing they'd ever seen in hockey, and thus didn't support my conclusion that it was a tipping point in perceptions about the league's failure or refusal to better police itself. Folks can reach their own conclusions about the hit. My point was that if this hit really was just like the rest, and nothing special, then hockey must change. And, no, it is not relevant to this discussion that Pacioretty is better and may, in fact, be back playing for the Canadiens by the time the playoffs come around in April. His good luck is no cover for league inaction.

Finally, commenting critics (like the National Hockey League Players Association) blamed conditions at the Canadiens' home rink--specifically, the stanchion which Pacioretty hit--as the cause of the problem. Don Cherry, the bombastic analyst for Hockey Night in Canada, showed a clip of other players being driven into stanchions in one way or another. His point was that Chara's hit on Pacioretty was a hockey play and that it was the Canadiens' fault for not better protecting their players. Sure, rinks should be as safe as they could be. But that still doesn't excuse Chara for needlessly directing Pacioretty's head into it.

Update: To its credit, the NHL did take stern action Monday in the case of Matt Cooke, a forward for Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins. Cooke, a repeat offender, delivered a vicious and illegal elbow to the head of New York Rangers rookie defenseman Ryan McDonough (a former first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, incidentally) in a game on Sunday afternoon. By dusk on Monday, the League had suspended Cooke for the remainder of the season (nine games) and the first round of the playoffs in April.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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