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NHL concerned about hits to head

For Marc Savard, the issue of NHL players dishing out illegal blows to the head is all about respect.

Players need more of it for each other, the Bruins center said.

"It's an issue we'll have to address when the players meet this summer. Guys want to win and play the game hard, but that's an area we still need some work on."

The league believes so, too. And after suspending three players in five days last month for blows to the head, it sent a memo to all teams threatening harsher fines and suspensions.

"If you go after the head in an illegal fashion, then we're going to try to protect the players," said Mike Murphy, the NHL's director of hockey operations. "Let's wake up and stop this. That was the basis of the memo, and I think it has worked."

The NHL has suspended only one player since for a head shot. But that hasn't changed the bottom line, players said.

"There's a certain amount of respect you have to have for your opponent," Lightning defenseman Jamie Heward said. "You're not going out there to wreck somebody's livelihood or ruin the rest of his life by taking a cheap shot at somebody's head."

A physical game

Murphy said the league's action did not make all head shots illegal.

"Only shots to the head where guys have options to do other things and don't do them," Murphy said.

Such as when Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos ran the head of Toronto's Mike Van Ryn from behind into the glass, causing a concussion, a broken nose, a lacerated forehead and damaged teeth and gums.

Or the elbows thrown by Ottawa's Jarkko Ruutu on Montreal's Maxim Lapierre, and the Islanders' Thomas Pock on Ottawa's Ryan Shannon.

Pock was suspended five games for the blow that gave Shannon a concussion. It was the last of the series of incidents that caused the league to act.

"It's about time they did," said Charles Tator, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto who has treated several NHL players with concussions.

"They're destroying their own brains. Once a part of the brain is destroyed by repeated concussions, we can't grow it back so the emphasis has to be on prevention."

NHL teams reported 74 concussions last season, Murphy said. Of those, 60 were caught on video. Of those, Murphy said 19 were caused by shoulder or upper-arm hits to the head.

Murphy said making all head shots illegal, regardless of intent, as the junior Ontario Hockey League did, is not practical.

"When you get players as big and as strong and as fast and as skilled as the group that plays in the NHL, traveling at 20 mph in a confined space, you're going to have collisions, whether it be with another player's shoulder or another player's body or with the boards that can cause head injuries and could be termed head shots," he said. "But they are part of the playing environment, and we haven't been able to find a way, nor has anybody else, of getting them out."


Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said head shots weren't as prevalent before the instigator rule because "there was retribution."

Then again, he said, "Maybe it's the coaches' fault because we're constantly complaining, 'You're not aggressive enough and have to be tougher.' But I don't think that's tough hockey."

"It's a heated, emotional game," Sabres center Derek Roy said, "and you're going to do stuff that if you had a chance to think about it or look back on it, you wouldn't do it. It's that emotion. It's the fire in every player."

Whatever the causes, Savard said the Players Association likely will take up the subject at next summer's meeting.

Heward, while favoring stricter head shot rules, said to be careful.

"You don't want to take aggressiveness out of the game," he said. "There are certain parts of the NHL that make it the NHL."

Agreed, Roy said, "But take a second and realize what the consequences are to you and to other players."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at

NHL concerned about hits to head 12/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 9:29am]
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