ShareThis Page

Starkey: NHL GMs whiff on open net

| Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello raised a fascinating philosophical question the other day at the GM meetings in Florida amid the furor surrounding head shots.

Said Lou: “What is a hit to the head?”

Hmmm. I guess I always thought of a hit to the head as ... a hit ... to ... the ... head. As in, I use part of my body — say, one of my shoulders — to deliver a check to the area where your neck stops and your chin begins. Most cultures refer to it as the head.

Am I missing something?

The GMs sure did, whiffing on the equivalent of an open net by refusing to recommend a full ban on head shots in a league where 1 in 10 players has been concussed this season. This was their chance. And while it's nice the topic finally reached the table, these guys have been known to move slower than former Penguins center Milan Kraft when it comes to making fundamental, safety-enhancing changes.

I remember covering the All-Star Game in 1998, my first year as a Penguins beat writer, and hearing players voice concerns about the seamless glass surrounding rinks. They said it had no give. Some had suffered head injuries. Their concern sparked a discussion.

One that has lasted 13 years.

Incredibly, we still have several arenas sporting seamless glass (Consol Energy Center is not one of them). Thankfully, part of commissioner Gary Bettman's plan to reduce concussions is to recommend the removal of such glass.Other initiatives are coming, including more caution in assessing players suspected of having a concussion.

All of which is appropriate, but banning head hits would have been the revolutionary change hockey needs — and the change old-school GMs such as Toronto's Brian Burke couldn't stomach.

Why does it have to be so complicated• Obviously there would be issues in implementing such radical change. That was the case coming out of the lockout, too, when the league instituted a zero-tolerance policy on clutching and grabbing in an effort to open up the neutral zone. Players adjusted. So did referees. And there are still many gray areas.

One of the big worries about banning head hits is how taller players could legally check smaller players without making contact to the head. That is a legitimate concern. It would be a gray area. As would players attempting to draw penalties by ducking.

That's why referees get paid.

I asked 6-foot-5 Penguins winger Mike Rupp about the tall-guy argument. He wasn't buying it.

“The first piece of my body should not be hitting the other guy's head first,” Rupp said. “Any first contact to the head, I don't think should be allowed.”

Bingo. And it's worth noting again that many of the NHL's major feeder systems already ban head shots. That would include the Ontario Hockey League, the NCAA and the International Ice Hockey Federation. Does anyone watch college hockey and think it's soft?

Bettman trotted out some intriguing numbers from the league's recent study on concussions, or at least the 80 or so reported this season. It revealed that 44 percent resulted from legal hits, 26 percent from accidental hits, 17 percent from illegal hits and eight percent from fighting (five percent were undetermined).

What to make of it• First, the elimination of fighting apparently could eliminate nearly 1 in 10 concussions. That's notable, though I'm sure many would look at the above numbers as proof that only so much can be done to reduce concussions in a high-speed, collision sport.

I agree to an extent — there will always be concussions in hockey — but that's not the point.

The point is how concussions can be dramatically reduced, and here's the most disturbing number of all, as reported by the New York Times: Of the 44 percent of concussions caused by legal hits, 14 percent can be attributed to what Bettman called “legal head shots."

"Legal head shots" should be outlawed.

Fifteen years and hundreds of concussions from now, maybe they will be.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.