Marian Gaborik

Coming To A Head

Eliminate all head shots from the NHL.  Sounds like a worthy endeavor, and even something that can be achieved with relatively little effort given the number of concussions to some of the premier offensive players like Sidney Crosby, Brad RichardsMarian Gaborik and Marc Savard among others.  But as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Perhaps the best example in recent times is the instigator rule, added in 1992.  The rule was introduced to help protect players from being jumped by an opponent when they weren’t prepared.  It didn’t eliminate fighting altogether – it does still allow willing combatants to square off – but it has to some extent reduced the violence in the sport.

It also opened up a window of opportunity for the “agitator” role.  Typically an undersized forward who has no problem crossing the line, and in many cases contributing to the very problem that Sidney Crosby and other leading players are now coming out against.

Matt Cooke, Raffe Torres, Vaclav Varada, Darcy Tucker, Ryan Hollweg, Patrick Kaleta and even Sean Avery are all modern day examples of this role to a more or lesser degree.  Most are disliked by the majority of their opponents, but they have carved out a role in the NHL.

Ultimately it was the instigator rule that helped these players reach their prominence, and it’s the lack of accountability that has enabled them to continue to wreak havoc in the league.

That’s not to say the instigator rule couldn’t have worked.  The issue is really in the enforcement of the existing rules, and the ability to pose increasingly stiffer penalties, than the relatively soft ones that are now in place.  Perhaps instead of giving a handful of games here and there, a player faced a 20 or 40 game suspension, then they might think twice about crossing the line.

Last year the league introduced the blind-side hit clause to the interference rule.  The goal was to prevent players from being hit when they weren’t prepared for the contact.  The result this past season was a series of cases that ultimately cost Colin Campbell his job as the league’s enforcer.  The task at hand – to evaluate comparatively whether a hit was good or not – was ultimately too subjective, and put the league on the defensive more often than not.

The issue is that there is no way to objectively measure what is legal and illegal.  All hits become judgement calls, and there will almost always be someone who has grounds for disagreeing with the call.  The media, internet pundits and, even the fans themselves have the capability of undermining the credibility of those in charge, simply by disagreeing – albeit vociferously.

The incoming league discipline committee, headed up by Brendan Shanahan, is only all to aware of these issues.  His changes to the process – including public explanations for why a penalty was or was not implemented – is intended to address some of these concerns, and yet there’s a good chance it simply increases the level of critiquing.  Perhaps the only mitigating factor will be that Shanahan is likely to get a good deal more respect than his predecessor.

If the league is to embrace Crosby’s call to eliminate head shots, then they’ll be faced with the challenge of putting in a set of rules that can work in the majority of situations.  It’ll then be up to the referees to enforce them.

How do you take into account the height difference between players for instance.  Would a player like Mats Zuccarello benefit, while the likes of Zdeno Chara and Brian Boyle suffer, in much the same way as Eric Lindros would get called for interference penalties when players ran into him and bounced off?

What about players who are falling, or leaning over, or for that matter incidental contact?  In the case of high sticking, a player can be called when their opponent skates into their stick, could a similar situation happen with head shots?

We’re still at the discussion phase of this proposed rule change, and there’s no guarantee anything will get done at this point.  With that said, it does appear only a matter of time before some form of adjustment is made – later if not sooner.

At that point we’ll likely experience the same sort of uneven enforcement of the rules that is common when a new subjective judgement is added to the referee’s responsibilities.  While I can respect the players’ calls for eliminating head shots, I have to wonder whether it might be yet another step on the road to reducing the level of excitement of the game.

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