NHL eyes head hits with yielding approach
BOSTON — When Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson was playing youth hockey in Minnesota, the kids wore "STOP" signs on the back of their jerseys to discourage dangerous hits.
The NHL has opted for something more like "Proceed with Caution."
Choosing not to follow the lead of the many minor and youth leagues that have banned all hits to the head, the NHL is instead cracking down on them case-by-case. New discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, only three years removed from his playing days, has been suspending players for the most egregious hits, and the message appears to be getting through.
"If the head is the principle point of contact, you're going to hear about it, get a fine or a suspension," Johnson said as he prepared for a new season and a new focus on avoiding concussions. "I think it's starting to get ingrained in people's minds now. ... With all these suspensions handed out and guys losing money over it, guys aren't going to do those plays anymore. For one, they hurt their team. (And) it hurts the league when guys are out with head injuries."
With former NHL MVP Sidney Crosby slowly working his way back from a concussion and other stars like Boston's Marc Savard out for the season, the league is hoping the added attention on head hits will get players' attention and persuade them to change their long-held habits. Already in the preseason, Shanahan has suspended eight players for hits to the head or checking from behind.
Most players interviewed by The Associated Press at a dozen NHL training camps said the new emphasis will make them think twice before lining up an opponent. Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said the threat of punishment is a powerful disincentive, whether an in-game penalty or a postgame suspension.
But Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said the fear of hurting someone, especially now that more is known about the danger of concussions, is also having an effect.
"I like to think of myself as a pretty honest player," he said. "So if a guy's in a vulnerable position I'm not going to follow through on a hit. I just have too much respect for other players around the league. We're all guys that are just trying to make a living, and if you injure someone and they can't anymore, then you're affecting their livelihood."
Blue Jackets forward Rick Nash said the suspensions are already the buzz in the locker room.
"Shanahan's making a footprint in his duties," he said. "As a player, it's good because hockey only goes on for so long. We have a lot of years after hockey and we want to be able to think clearly."
But it's not just the players being knocked to the ice or into the boards who are in danger.
Those doling out the hits are also in danger, and often the damage doesn't appear until after their playing days are over.
Three former NHL enforcers — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak — died this summer under circumstances consistent with post-concussion syndrome. Boogaard died from an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone; Rypien had been suffering from depression; Belak hanged himself, a person familiar with his death told the AP.
Crosby, who has not played since January, would support a total ban on head shots.
"We're not talking about a lot. The game's not going to change," he said, citing statistics that showed that only 50 of the 50,000 hits in hockey last year were to the head. "Whether it's accidental or not accidental, you've got to be responsible out there. At the end of the day, you can do a lot more good than what it's going to take away from the game."
But the effort is not without its speed bumps.
Shanahan gave longer suspensions to two players — Calgary forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski — because they were repeat offenders. (Wisniewski will also forfeit $536,585.36 in salary for his 10-game suspension.)
"It seems to be the same guys every year," Bruins defenseman Joe Corvo said. "I don't know if guys like that don't care or what."
Across the locker room at the TD Garden, Boston forward Nathan Horton prepared for his first preseason game since being knocked out of the Stanley Cup finals on a frightening, blind-side hit in Game 3 from Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome. Horton did not play again in the series, and he did not get back onto skates until late in the summer.
"As a player, you know when to hit and when not to hit," he said. "You can still play on the edge and not cross that line. But some guys, I'm not sure if they know where the line is."
Minnesota Wild forward Brad Staubitz, who was among those suspended during the preseason, said it's not so easy to change what he's been doing all of his hockey life. Staubitz, who has 359 penalty minutes and 18 points in three NHL seasons, will serve the rest of the preseason and three regular-season games for an illegal check from behind that sent Columbus' Cody Bass into the glass.
"I'm still learning, too. Obviously," Staubitz said. "I think it's going to be tough for guys because playing like that is why they're there. Not playing dirty, but the physicality. You stray away from that and then you're digging through your toolbox saying, 'What else can I do?"'
Those who defend the physical contact in hockey say that it allows players to police themselves; knowing that if you are vulnerable to retaliation, you could keep a player from making a dirty hit in the first place. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said giving players an outlet for their aggression could actually make things safer.
"I think it should be part of the game," he said. "If you take the fights (out), a guy who is going to be frustrated is going to whack with their stick, is going to do something else. Frustration is part of everyday life, whether you're at work on your desk or decide to punch your computer. It's something you have to get out. A fight when you're frustrated can give momentum to your team."
But in suspending Wisniewski for a blow to the head of Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck — after the horn — Shanahan noted that it appeared to be retaliation for an earlier hit and said it would not be tolerated.
"If Wisniewski feels threatened," Shanahan said in a YouTube video explaining the punishment, "he must choose another way to defend himself."
And for Johnson, that's as good as a big red "STOP" sign.
"That's a good month of hockey right there and a lot of money coming out of his paycheck," Johnson said. "That's going to make guys think twice about hitting at the head."