Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hits to the Head (and all the headaches that come with making rules about them)

Part 1

You may not recall this, but the original concept of CLS focused on dissecting the NHL's biggest issues in a round table format. Instead, the blog morphed into something that is often much better.

Still, though, now that the blog features two brainy contributors in Joe and Chris Kontos, we'll occasionally take such an approach with various issues.

In this case, Joe e-mailed me after a weekend full off controversial hits. Here's the first part of our discussion.

James, we're not even a whole month into the NHL regular season, and already it seems that we've hit our yearly quota for incidents in which someone made a outright dirty hit, or at least made one which was borderline dirty. I got into this discussion last spring with Art and Daniel(and hey, we're even hijacking their gimmick!) on the Brown/Hudler hit during the DET/ANA series, and then again with Art when Kronwall broke Marty Havlat in the DET/CHI series. The other day, Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski said his piece on reactions to the recent Mike Richards/David Booth hit, comparing it to this hit by Willie Mitchell on Jonathan Toews. I'm sure both of us agree on such blatant cheap shots as this Ruutu shot on Darcy Tucker, which resulted in a 3 game suspension, but that black and white turns to gray really quick when you start looking at some other more controversial hits. Obviously we want a contact sport, but at the same time, there is a definite problem in the league with regards to headshots, even those delivered legally by the letter of the law like Richards', though the clean/dirty aspect of it, despite its legality, is definitely up for debate. Where do you think that line should be drawn, and how should it be enforced? Is a full ban on hits to the head the answer?

I'm just going to slip these in here, for reference, examples, general viewing enjoyment, and probably to stir up some folks in the comments as well, in addition to the previously linked hits:Nik Kronwall/Marty Havlat, Nik Kronwall/Mike Ribiero, Dion Phaneuf/Kyle Okposo, Doug Weight/Brandon Sutter, Scott Stevens/Eric Lindros, Stevens/Slava Kozlov, Stevens/Ron Francis,Stevens/Shane Willis, Stevens/Paul Kariya.


Oh boy is this ever a loaded issue. I guess the first point that needs to be made is that, unlike Joe, I don't have a frame of reference beyond street hockey. I am an anti-athlete. Watching me play sports is an exercise in unintentional comedy.

I can't even skate backwards without looking like an idiot.

So, from my personal perspective, it's difficult to be too hard on some of those gray area hits. Hockey is a ridiculously fast sport and to assume that they are ALL deliberate attempts to injure is probably misguided. In particular, hits against the boards (while often being the most dangerous from a neck injury/concussion standpoint) can go from painful to dirty while a player has already committed to the check.

That being said, these ARE world class athletes we're talking about. The Sports Guy Bill Simmons had an interesting take on Bruce Bowen of the San Antonio Spurs being accused of being a dirty player:

"Bruce Bowen is a cheap player. There's no debate. He's not some clumsy power forward who can't stay out of his own way (like Mark Madsen), or even some uncoordinated center who can't remember to keep his elbows near his body (like Shawn Bradley). He's a world-class athlete who has complete control over every inch of his body at all times.

As anyone who's ever played basketball knows, with the exception of clumsy people who probably shouldn't be playing in the first place, there are no accidents on a basketball court.Your feet just don't coincidentally land under someone else's feet as he's shooting a jump shot, and you don't just coincidentally kick someone in the calf as he's going up for a layup or dunk. These things don't just happen. They don't. The only room for error happens when someone's trying to block a fast-break layup or dunk, takes a roundhouse swipe and inadvertently ends up hitting his opponent's head instead of the ball (like we saw with Matt Barnes when he clocked Matt Harpring Tuesday night). When Jason Richardson nails Memo Okur at the end of Game 4 because he's pissed that Okur was driving at the tail end of a guaranteed win, or Baron Davis elbows Derek Fisher in the same game because he's ticked that the Warriors blew a winnable game ... those aren't accidents."

Before we get into defining what a dirty hit really is, I have to ask you Joe: does it matter whom the offender is? Should guys who seem to continually blur the line between legal and illegal ... who have a tendency to take advantage of other players ... should the Scott Stevens, Dion Phaneufs and Mike Richards of the world be under special consideration?

In other words, can we fairly judge the intention of a hit and should reputation be taken into account?


I don't think reputation should be considered at all in the actual penalty. If Pavel Datsyuk, who may actually be Lady Byng, makes a dirty play, he ought to be called just the same as anyone else. Conversely, while Nik Kronwall may be universally reviled for having a tendency to leave his feet when hitting, you can't tell me he doesn't make a lot of legal, clean hits as well. The ice itself is not the place for refs to have to make even more subjective calls about reputations and intents. Reputation and prior incidents should only be an issue during the supplemental discipline process, for players who are refusing to learn from past issues.

Hand in hand with avoiding subjectivity on the ice, intent should also be tossed out the window by the refs, and only considered within the supplemental discipline process. Refs have a hard enough time doing their jobs, and adding more subjective considerations to their calls is only going to make things worse, both in terms of calls missed and phantom calls made. Besides that, I think intent is a pretty shady area in which to judge anyways. Rarely does anyone ever mean to break someone's neck or end someone's career or change someone's life. The intent is usually to make someone think twice, to be hesitant in going into the corners, to help wear someone down. I think we both agree that particular intent is legit, and a good part of the game, but its the execution that sometimes goes a little too far, right?

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk along the lines of eliminating hits to the head. In the OHL, all hits to the head are deemed illegal, and in the AHL, any hit to the head which is deemed to be intentional is an automatic match penalty. The thinking behind those rules was that the acceptable intent of hitting someone, as I just mentioned, can still be fulfilled without hitting the player in the head. Hits to the head are then thought to serve no constructive purpose in the game, outside of attempting to inflict an injury on your opponent. On the other side, many people contend that such crackdowns wouldn't work, because you'd have Zdeno Chara getting penalties all the time for hitting the likes of Marty St. Louis in the head, or that such restrictions go too far and remove too much physicality from the game. Where should that line be drawn?

James: What do you think, fair readers?

Stay tuned for Part 2!


Anaheim Calling said...

How I love a lively discussion.

One thing I learned from bugging sports games is how much realism I expect, not just in set offensive and defensive schemes, but in player to player interaction. And I would ask Joe, when you play a hockey video game, how often do you concern yourself with making contact in the chest, between a player's shoulder blades?

I'm going to bet always. It's the hockey equivalent of the target points for the Vulcan neck pinch. From there, you can affect a player's balance, his grip on the puck, his grip on his stick , etc. The shoulder check to the chest is your standard issue takedown in full contact hockey. How can you ask hockey players to disregard it?

Anaheim Calling said...

Also, much love on the links which subtly imply Kronwall is the new Stevens.

Unknown said...

Yeah, we'll continue this soon ... part of the reason it's taking a while is because I'm having trouble deciding what to say. To me, it's a complicated issue.

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