To anyone who has watched a game live, on television, or even caught a highlight, Rule 48 — the NHL’s answer to the hit to the head epidemic that has ruled headlines regarding the league for the better part of two years — means much more than just a simple rule change that aids in the safety of its players. By inducing the rule, the NHL has begun to attempt to instill an environment in which the players safety is taken into great consideration through the removal of, as NHL Rule 48.1 in the NHL’s Official Rulebook states, “lateral or blind side [hits] to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
Through this amendment to the rulebook, there are many who believe the NHL could be seeing an entire culture change coming in the near future. The removal of hits of this ilk, though without question a step in the right direction for the league, has begun to bring to the forefront more issues, those related to contact — period — being taken from the game.
After a year in which we saw two of the most gruesome results of on ice incidents in recent memory, the blindside hits on David Booth and Marc Savard, we have already begun to see the culture shift.
Players, no doubt, do not want to hurt their fellow players. In seeing this, we can now recognize the players becoming cognisant of what the result lining up an unknowing player can be. Mike Richards, for one, has been seen on a few occasions letting up on hits when he has an opponent lined up across the middle. Matt Cooke… well, he continues to be Matt Cooke, but the point is that players have begun to take a greater responsibility for their actions.
Concussions, no doubt, are a hot button issue throughout all contact sports. Hockey, while being no different, is unfortunately the leader when it comes to head injuries. A game where players are propelled at speeds greater than those that can be achieved on foot, with players draped in a shell of plastic armour, the injuries when contact is made with the head can often result in greater impact and, as such, a greater chance of severe injury.
However, with the league’s focus on the removal and discipline of these hits (no matter how blurred those lines of discipline may be), there have been those that have begun to oppose if the NHL’s new rule is even enough. This season alone there have been over fifty reported concussions, as well as two players who have been “shut down” for the entire season.
Marc Savard, who, as noted earlier, was the recipient of a hit to the head that was seen as one of the catalysts for the rule change, was told by doctors that his season should come to an end. As a result, the Boston Bruins have shut down Savard, 33, for the remainder of the season. Many have questioned whether or not the aging Savard will continue with his career after this latest incident, one which was suffered in part due to a clean hit by Avalanche defenseman Matt Hunwick that resulted in Savard’s colliding with the endboards.
It is not to say that all of these incidents in which a player suffers head trauma resulting in a concussion can be avoided; some of the plays resulting in a concussion are a direct result of the speed and power of the players. We need not look further than Ian Laperriere.
Laperriere, an NHL veteran and, by all accounts, a fan favourite in whichever city he calls home, was forced earlier this season to postpone his debut in the ’10-’11 campaign after a concussion sidelined him for almost the entire playoffs. Laperriere’s injury, unlike others mentioned throughout this article, was not a direct result of physical contact. Rather, Laperriere, in attempting to perform his role as a shot-blocker and defensive minded winger went down to block a Paul Martin shot. The result was grotesque.
In the instant it takes for an NHL calibre slapshot to leave a stick and connect with a target, a mere quarter of a second, there is little to no time to react. Laperriere, who fell right in line with the blast from the point by Martin, immediately clutched his face. The impact left Laperriere with laid out on the ice, blood covering the ice. When he did return, full cage affixed to his helmet, it was evident that he was not the same player. Laperriere would play out the remainder of the playoffs after missing ten games with a concussion and concussion symptoms.
He has not played since. The aforementioned postponement of his season has turned into a stint on the Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) and Laperriere’s retirement was strongly suggested by doctors. Although he holds fast that he may be able to make a return to the ice soon, it seems as though it will no doubt be the end of his career. Savard being sidelined was a result of a wild concoction of both unfortunate and unacceptable plays, while Laperriere’s is merely the by-product of heart and the will to win.
Raitis Ivanans, however, has only himself to blame.
Raitis Ivanans has appeared in one game this campaign and his season looks to be over after this fight with Steve MacIntyre.
The pugilist, a member of the Calgary Flames, has played in only one game this season. A game in which he was knocked almost completely out cold by fellow tough-guy Steve MacIntyre, a member of the Edmonton Oilers. The two dropped the gloves, squared off, and began trading punches. The fight, which lasted a meager fifteen seconds, may have changed Ivanans career forever. He was struck with a strong jab by MacIntyre and immediately crumpled onto the ice. The Flames trainer, while on ice, seemed to be talking with a man who had absolutely no bearing on what the situation was. For all intensive purposes, he was out cold. Eyes glazed over in a way you hope you never see, Ivanans was helped off the ice by teammates and has not returned to the game since.
Without mincing words, it could be said that the loss of Ivanans will have no great effect on the league or its ability to put people in the stands, but what about the issue on a grander scale?
While the NHL takes a long, hard look at hits to the head and removing plays that could deliver a blow like that suffered by Savard or David Booth, they have for the most part neglected the fact that fighting is one of the greatest sources of cranial contact.
So far, of nearly fifty concussions that have been reported to have occurred in the NHL this season, six have been due to puck’s version of policing.
In no way is this preaching the removal of fighting from the game. Fighting, as many will argue along side me, has a place in the game as much as anything. It is a part of the games history, part of what makes hockey what it is. Yet, can it remain when the consequences can be so grand?
Along with Ivanans, the others to miss games due to a concussion resulting from fisticuffs are David Koci, Derek Boogaard, Colton Orr, Ladislav Smid, and Bryce Salvador. Of the five other combatants, the last two are the most interesting.
Smid, jumped by Sean Avery in a game between the Oilers and Rangers on November 14, missed one game. New Jersey Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador, who willingly dropped the gloves with Rangers forward Kris Newbury in a pre-season game, has not played since and may not appear in a single game this season.
The lasting effect of concussions has a wide range, as do the severity of the injuries incurred by the players. In the fine line the league walks between changing the game forever or slightly altering the culture that surrounds it, the NHL must realize the difference between what makes the hits to the head the real demon: the unaware player. Matt Cooke’s hit on Savard came at a time when Savard had no idea the back side pressure was coming and the same can be said for Richards on Booth.
In a fight, the gloves are dropped, the opponents often square off, and it is for arguments sake often a fair tussle. The willingness of the fighters is what differentiates fighting from most head shots; these players are aware of what the consequences may be and are putting themselves in these situations by their volition. However much the issue may have become in the past week with two full line brawls breaking out in Boston and New York, fighting has a place in the game and is best left unchanged. There is a time and a place in this, a game of high emotion and extreme intensity.
The NHL has to make some tough decisions, but the abolishment of fisticuffs should be far from the top of the list.