Injurious head shots seem to be grabbing headlines every day this season, and one has finally landed in the Pacific Division as James Wisniewski erased Shane Doan at Jobing.com on Saturday, a hit which garnered the Ducks defenseman a two-game suspension.
Daniel, you and I have already said our peace on the NHL regulating the shoulder check to the head, but let's talk about another controversial prong of this issue. Assuming that not every player is trying to put a shoulder into a guy's head, but most are aware that they will likely make shoulder-to-head and not shoulder-to-chest contact, is the shoulder check to the head a dirty play?
Before I answer the question, I have to admit that I'm starting to waver on this issue a little. When I was watching the Phoenix game, Brian Hayward mentioned that players seem to be getting hurt more due to the speed of the game and the increasing size of the players. This sentiment was echoed in the Ottawa Citizen by Bryan Murray, who feels the game's faster pace has left more players caught with their head down and hit with harder hits.
It's undeniable that the game is moving much faster than in previous years, and guys are flying into boards, flying into each other and flying into goaltenders. USA Today's Kevin Allen claims that roughly 18% of the league's regulars are currently injured or ill. In this environment, I think players should start making the extra effort with each other to prevent more injuries, especially career-ending injuries. I don't know if crashing into guys who are speeding through the neutral zone while looking back for a stretch pass is "dirty," but it certainly isn't safe. I love fast-paced physical hockey, but pretty soon there won't be anybody to play that style, because they will all be hurt.
My answer to the question is that I don't think these shoulder hits to the head are dirty. Taking the body is part of this sport, one of the most exciting parts. But maybe, guys need to be more responsible in their hit selection. Standing a guy up doesn't mean you have to bury him. Ultimately, players need to be more responsible for their hits. I'm not saying you shouldn't hit a guy skating with his head down, but you should maybe avoid a 100% shoulder follow through. If the guy can't see you coming, it's better not to lower the boom. That way, our favorite superstars can stay on the ice, instead of ruining our fantasy hockey seasons.
First, I just want to say that I honestly believe that not every player is attempting to catch a guy in the head with his shoulder; it's not just an assumption I created for the purposes of this question. In fact, it's an assumption made in many sports. Soccer players aren't always booked or suspended for kicking a guy in the head when he's going for a header. The referee assumes the player was trying to make a legal play on the ball, but you'll never convince the injured player's fans of that.
And it's the fans that really drive the 'dirty' discussion. They see their guy laid out or put onto a stretcher, and the perpetrator is automatically a dirty player in their eyes. But a play isn't dirty just because it injured someone. A textbook hip check can injure someone too, but I've never heard Rob Blake called dirty for it. And you and I never called Scott Stevens dirty for putting his shoulder into Paul Kariya or anyone else's head, whether he came laterally at them or skated straight into them.
I agree that rule changes have made the game faster, and maybe placed it at odds with itself, but there is a legal, purposeful and traditional hockey hit underneath all this controversy. And it's NOT akin to helmet-to-helmet tackles or head-slapping in the old NFL. In last year's playoffs, when Brown dropped Hudler, the TSN crew had a lively debate about it, but Bob McKenzie rolled tape on textbook shoulder checks to the chest executed elsewhere in the playoffs, checks that were completely harmonious with today's NHL. The shoulder check still has a place in the game.
People who want the NHL to do more about it aren't wrong, but people who claim players should keep their heads up aren't wrong either. Not every player is trying to cheapshot Blair Betts out there. Most are just trying to execute a solid check, and they have enough professional respect for each other to hope the other guy gets up or sees them coming in the first place.