Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Hockey is Evolving

Whether it's the NHL, college hockey, or high school hockey, we're seeing a pretty impressive crackdown on hits to the head in recent years.

Could it be better? Sure. But it's a start.

The game is evolving. While some like Don Cherry might not like it, most realize and understand that this is for the greater good of the sport long-term.

In the NHL, Brendan Shanahan has taken over as the league's head of player safety and supplemental discipline czar. The results so far have been really good. Shanahan has hit the ground running, issuing a number of controversial suspensions during the preseason and early in the regular season. While he might not be "right" in the eyes of the public 100 percent of the time, Shanahan has been open and honest about his decision-making, and willing to make a case for those decisions in the public eye.

He doesn't insult anyone's intelligence. He explains what he is seeing on the tape, and why his Department of Player Safety has decided what it has decided in every case.

Even when he issues a suspension I have disagreed with -- like the two-game ban to Pierre-Marc Bouchard that will wrap up Tuesday in Ottawa -- it's hard to rip him for his line of thinking, because he lays it all out on tape, and he's been consistent with his positions.

Shanahan even opened his office's decision NOT to suspend Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone for a hit on Chris Campoli. Here is that video.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, and one that can be used going forward to judge future hits and whether players will be suspended.

In the college game, head contact (where the head is targeted) has been a five-minute major and game misconduct or disqualification for a few years now. I'm not a huge fan of how officials have executed those calls, but the rule seems to have been effective in getting players to exercise more responsibility with the contact they make on the ice.

Outside of a questionable hit by Notre Dame's Stephen Johns Saturday night in Duluth, I haven't really seen anything that would qualify as dirty, or that Shanahan would want to address were he college hockey's discipline czar.

(Sidebar: Can you imagine WCHA Director of Officiating Greg Shepherd and/or Commissioner Bruce McLeod making a video to explain a disciplinary decision and then releasing it to the public like Shanahan does? The potential for unintentional comedy is off the charts.)

The bottom line here is that there are things the college game can do to clean itself up even further -- i.e. mandatory time off the ice if there is any head contact (think "quiet room"), or less leeway for officials when calling penalties for hits to the head. But college hockey is doing good things, and the game is evolving in terms of on-ice safety as a result.

At the high school and youth levels, there are movements underway to educate coaches, parents, and kids about the symptoms and dangers of concussions. The more you know, the better off you are, and in the case of concussions, so much is unknown that it's vitally important that people understand the facts and the myths about them.

No matter the level of hockey, we've finally stopped fooling around with head shots and head injuries, and you're seeing players' games evolving as a result. Expect things to keep getting better, as the NHL's crackdown -- and its general effectiveness -- will have a great impact on the rules and regulations at lower levels.

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