Recently, NHL general managers met in Toronto. One of the topics discussed was the idea of further legislation on hits to the head in the sport. The NHL has seen more than a few questionable hits in the not-too-distant past.
Give the league credit for showing a willingness to tackle this issue head-on, but it remains to be seen if they decide to do the right thing. Adding more penalties and more points of emphasis for officials to have to deal with is not a good idea. These guys have a horrible view of the action in most cases, and giving them more to think about doesn't seem to be the prudent way to handle this.
What needs to change is the system the league uses to determine supplemental discipline. It's irretrievably broken. Take, for example, this hit earlier in the NHL season.
You can argue that Richards tried to hit Booth clean, but Booth's head was down, and he was admiring his pass.
Guess what ... it's not 1977 anymore.
As players have become bigger, faster, and stronger, sports leagues have had to become more conscious of the damage that can be done by full-speed hits to the head. Richards' hit merited a long suspension, should have at least netted a short one, and got ...
The fact that the NHL dropped the ball on that is not surprising. There is simply no mechanism to consistently punish hits like that after the fact. That's what the league needs to work on. Throwing Richards in the box might have helped, but taking him out of the lineup for a week is a more effective punishment.
While the NHL has an issue, college hockey has a real quandary on its hands. A few years back, they made a serious move toward player protection. It was mandated that any hit made from behind that took a player into the boards would be a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
One would think that such a punishment would cause guys to step back and stop making those types of hits.
Nope. If anything, things have gotten worse.
When UMD played Clarkson over Halloween weekend, there were four hit-from-behind major penalties assessed. While one of them was severely questionable, the other three really were not. Not only that, but one of them was so flagrant that it earned the offending player a well-deserved game disqualification.
This past weekend, North Dakota star defenseman Chay Genoway became the latest victim of a brutal headshot.
Yes, you can joke about Genoway's height -- or lack thereof -- being a factor. If he was six-two, he wouldn't have been hit in the head. However, part of throwing a clean hit is understanding your target. If St. Cloud State's Aaron Marvin thought he was throwing a clean hit, he was dead wrong.
He picked up a one-game suspension, which was a solid punishment for a player with no track record of such behavior.
UMD's Mike Connolly took a shot to the head along the boards Saturday. It wasn't as flagrant as Marvin's hit, but it was still stupid and dangerous.
Players have to be made -- somehow -- to understand that there is no longer a place in hockey for these types of hits. The answer is hardly an easy one. There is a fine line between punishing players and hurting their teams. You don't want to sit a valuable player for five games because he did something stupid just once. At the same time, you don't want to let players get off without any punishment for obviously illegal and dangerous hits.
Bottom line is that they should have no place in the game. None. They're dangerous, unnecessary, and often selfish and stupid. Stop giving guys free passes because they hit someone who had the puck, or because the guy turned to face the boards at the last second. Yes, there will be big hits that happen because guys have their head down and can't brace for the contact, but when you see a hit like the one Richards threw, where he drove at the unsuspecting player's head (seemingly on purpose), you drop the hammer.
Given the way that things are going, it's probably time for leagues to err on the side of over-punishing players. Again, I'm not saying Marvin's discipline was out of line. In fact, that was just right. The challenge for the WCHA and other college and pro leagues is to draw this line and stick to it.
We've seen proof over time that this is much easier said than done.