Sports  Protecting the Blindside

The NHL is leaving players on open ice, and out to dry.

When the Florida Panthers’ David Booth dropped the gloves to square up against Philadelphia’s Mike Richards last Wednesday, it was the first time he had decided to fight in his four-year NHL career. It wasn’t much of a fight, with Richards and Booth both getting in only a punch each before falling on top of one other. The short bout was, however, almost five months in the making.

Back in October, Richards blindsided Booth in a vicious open-ice hit as he came across the blue line. Booth was severely concussed and missed more than half the season. Last week’s game was the first time the two players had seen each other since the illegal hit, and as NBA veteran Kevin Garnett would say, Booth needed to “knock the bully out.” Any skeptics looking for the justification of fighting in the NHL need only look to the Booth-Richards fight for a demonstration of hockey’s complex psychodrama, of which fighting plays an indispensable role. The league failed to protect Booth’s integrity and safety by having a rule governing blindside hits, so it was left up to him to demonstrate to Richards that his behaviour was unacceptable.

The blindside headshot that sent Booth to a Philadelphia hospital is just one incident in a season full of similarly disgusting hits. Just this past Sunday, Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins took an elbow to the side of the head from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke, in what seemed like a replay of the Booth hit from October. Savard received a grade II concussion, meaning a loss of consciousness and likely post-traumatic amnesia, and is probably out for the season, threatening the Bruins’ chance in the playoffs come April. He is still having severe headaches and has difficulty staying awake for long periods of time.  The admittedly hyperbolic New England Sports Network broadcaster Jack Edwards, has compared the NHL’s reluctance to punish Cooke to King George III’s turning of his back on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – cementing the distrust between the newly independent America (the Bruins) and the British crown (the NHL).  Edwards’s statement is histrionic at best, but it demonstrates just how wide the gap is between the game’s natural violence, and the league’s ability to control these actions.

The NHL’s general managers convened in Florida this week to discuss possible rule changes after what has been a particularly violent season. The language surrounding this summit has been interest, if not downright weird. Militaristic euphemisms like “hawks” and “doves” are being used to describe the different sides of the debate, as if hockey were a war and the objective of this mission was to entertain fans and make money for the league. However, it’s encouraging to see the league addressing this issue in some form or another, especially after NHL senior vice president and director of hockey Operations Colin Campbell, made the ridiculous decision not to further punish Cooke for ending Savard’s season (Full disclosure: this Sports editor of a Montreal-based paper is, in fact, a Bruins fan).

We finally have some rule changes. Yesterday the managers announced the creation of a new rule that shifts the onus from the player who was hit to the player doing the hitting in blindside situations. The new rule creates what is best visualized as a triangle, pointing outward from the puck-carriers face. The triangle represents a puck-carrier’s field of vision, and illustrates the possible legal directions from which the puck-carrier may be checked – only within his line of sight.

General managers are claiming that through the new regulations against blindside hits, the culture of the game is being fundamentally altered. Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, told that “we want to take out a dangerous hit where [one player] targets [another player’s] head. He can still reef the guy; he just can’t target his head.” Burke’s quote gives the new rule more credit that it deserves. Hits that target the puck-carrier’s head have not been made categorically illegal, just those that come from outside the carrier’s field of vision. Under this rule, devastating full frontal checks that target the head, like the one Andrew Ladd of the Chicago Blackhawks delivered to Matt d’Agostini of the Montreal Canadiens back in October, would still be acceptable. The hit removed d’Agostini from the game and left him listed as day-to-day with a concussion.

While this effort is commendable, general managers and even most sports writers have failed to address the fundamental, if uncomfortable, question surrounding big hits in the NHL. Thanks to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s sun-belt business model, much of the NHL’s business and management strangely takes place in non-traditional American hockey markets, with teams that have been struggling for years to sell tickets and make money. There, business considerations are often take precedence over what’s right for hockey, something that is more important in Canada and northeastern states where market profitability will likely never be a problem. This creates the difficult scenario where dirty hits in hockey function like steroid-fuelled home-run races in baseball. A certain percentage of sports fans just want to see exciting action, and don’t care about steroids or the dangers of blindside skull-crushers. These fans will probably stop watching if the hits don’t come fast enough and hard enough, Grade II concussions be damned.

This serves to explain why the league has dragged its feet so much in recent years regarding the regulations surrounding the dangerous phenomenom of blindside hitting, and even now isn’t going far enough to protect players. It’s a pity that David Booth, Marc Savard, and many others this season needed to be carried off the ice on stretchers for anyone to take notice.