How to put an end to headhunting in the NHL

The league remains dangerously ambiguous about the role of violence in hockey
From the editors
How to put an end to headhunting in the NHL
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The NHL playoffs have just begun. But headhunting season is well under way.

In the dying seconds of his first game against the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber grabbed Red Wing star Henrik Zetterberg by the scruff of the neck and smashed his face into the glass, pro-wrestler style.

In an entirely out-of-control game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, Penguin James Neal left his feet to flatten Sean Couturier with a high check. The Flyers rookie was caught entirely defenceless, mainly because he didn’t have the puck at the time. As no penalty was called, Neal later delivered a flying elbow to the head of Philadelphia’s best player, Claude Giroux. In the same game, Penguin Arron Asham crosschecked Brayden Schenn in the throat.

Then, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was levelled in the corner by a devastating elbow to the head from Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers. Earlier in the same game, Senator tough guy Matt Carkner deliberately hunted down Brian Boyle and rained punches at his head. Boyle, to his credit, refused to fight back.

Hagelin has been suspended three games for his infraction. Carkner got one game. Weber received a $2,500 fine. At press time, Neal and Asham were still waiting to hear their fates. The NHL has already handed out as many suspensions in the 2012 playoffs as in last year’s entire Stanley Cup run.

NHL playoffs once meant a particular brand of hockey defined by contained aggression. It was tough, exciting hockey, but players generally avoided fighting and other outrageous acts of violence because of the consequences—a single stupid penalty can change the outcome of a game and decide a series. Not so this year. The 2012 playoffs have been marked by what appears to be a universal commitment to stupidity, mostly aimed at opponents’ heads.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This season began with extraordinary attention paid to concussions and their long-term consequences. And Brendan Shanahan, newly appointed as the NHL’s senior vice-president in charge of player safety and hockey operations, promised greater transparency and coherence when handing out punishments. To his credit, Shanahan now releases a video judgment with each suspension.

But regardless of Shanahan’s attempts at transparency, the NHL remains dangerously ambiguous about the role of violence in hockey. Case in point, Shanahan has been explicit in recent rulings that the extent of the injury determines the extent of the punishment. Weber’s laughably inconsequential fine was justified by the fact Zetterberg suffered no significant injury (other than a cracked helmet). Hagelin, on the other hand, got a hefty three games because he gave Alfredsson a concussion. So it’s not the on-ice act that’s being considered as much as the post-game medical report; shots to the head are dealt with sternly only when they result in a serious injury. But this ignores the crucial element of intent. If the goal is to eliminate all head shots, consistency demands that all deliberate head shots be dealt with equally, regardless of the outcome.

There is more at stake than the credibility of league officials. The game itself is at a crossroads. Fans have long debated the merits of ritualized fighting in hockey, but no one can possibly defend a game that allows players to roam the ice attempting to concuss each other on the fly. If the NHL fails to take decisive action to put an end to head shots, it will do long-term damage to the game as we know it, both as a commercial and recreational pursuit.

For a different approach, consider the reaction of the National Football League when it was revealed the New Orleans Saints coaching staff was encouraging players to injure opponents via a bounty system. Cash rewards could be earned for particular outcomes, such as if an opposing player required a cart to leave the field. While the actual number of injuries caused by this scheme was never firmly established, the league took action based on intent. And the action was severe.

Sean Payton, head coach of the Saints, has been suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season. The defensive coordinator and architect of the bounty program, Gregg Williams, has been suspended indefinitely. The general manager and another coach were also handed major penalties. Sanctions of this sort are unprecedented. And as a result, players can rest assured there will never be another headhunting bounty program in the NFL.

Now there’s no evidence NHL coaches are directly promoting the random acts of on-ice violence currently masquerading as playoff hockey. Rather, the teachable moment is that the NFL decided a particular type of behaviour was detrimental to its game, and took firm and incontrovertible action to eradicate it.

If Shanahan wishes to regain control over how hockey is being played in the 2012 playoffs, he needs to make a similarly clear and unequivocal statement that deliberate shots to the head will no longer be tolerated. Suspensions that last the entire playoffs would be a good place to start.