Head shots a concern for CHL too

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:10 PM ET

MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - Joey Hishon -- one of junior hockey's best players -- spent most of his Memorial Cup holed up in a dark hotel room trying to recover from an illegal elbow to the head.

Canadian Hockey League president David Branch called the Owen Sound Attack star's injury this week in Mississauga "an unfortunate situation" and attempted to assure parents and potential players that major junior remains a safe option.

"We have more strides to take in that area and will be ever vigilant," Branch said at a Cup news conference alongside Ottawa Senators and Mississauga St. Michael's Majors owner Eugene Melnyk on Friday at the Hershey Centre. "I talked to Joey Hishon the day after the incident. (Attack

captain) Garrett Wilson, too (after he was hurt Wednesday night).

"These are fine, young men. We care about all our players -- whether they're on the first or fourth line -- and their health is paramount to us.

"No one wants to see players get hurt. We warn our GMs, coaches and players don't sell your soul (for the chance to win the Memorial Cup)." Branch, the OHL commissioner, has been a hockey forerunner in doling out stiff punishment to aggressors who take head shots at opponents. Concussions have been the sport's biggest hot-button issue since NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins saw his season end with one this year.

"I remember we were heavily criticized when we first brought in rules to remove hits to the head," Branch said. "People were saying: 'What planet is that guy from?' But those kind of hits are something we don't need in our game and people are starting to realize that now." Still, the CHL sent a mixed message when Kootenay Ice captain Brayden McNabb received just one game -- the first Cup suspension in a dozen years -- for ending Hishon's tournament.

Branch said he doesn't have final say or influence on Cup punishment.

"That's why we brought in (former NHL vice-president) Brian O'Neill," he said. "It's his decision and he informs us of it so we don't read about it in the papers.

"When we didn't have an independent adjudicator, we found we ran into problems with conflict (of interest)." Though the Hishon injury will remain an enduring memory of this Cup, Branch doesn't see evidence that star players have become easy targets for cheap shots.

"I can tell you our GMs and coaches don't tell players to 'Get that guy,' " Branch said. "It simply doesn't happen in our league. You can't just look at eight games in May ... or one or two incidents. You have to consider all 680 games played (from September)." The Memorial Cup is supposed to be junior hockey's biggest stage, not just for players, but the officials, too.

There have been a couple of missed offside calls that have led to game-winning goals and some inconsistencies, but Branch defended the men in stripes.

"I truly believe our game is the most difficult of all the sports to officiate," he said. "It's a very fast game and it takes a special person.

"We believe in our officials, we're always working with the NHL and we have programs in place (to improve and educate) in that area.

"One of our (OHL) referees Darcy Burchell was chosen (by the International Ice Hockey Federation) to work the worlds this year and he called the gold-medal game so it's proof our officials are well-regarded."

Surprisingly, Rogers Sportsnet's TV ratings for the Cup have been much higher than last year when Windsor won its second straight title in Brandon.

Owen Sound and Kootenay are two of the CHL's smallest markets.

"We wondered about what would happen before we started," Branch said, "but it's great to see the numbers rising and Rogers has really committed to growing our relationship. They want to see the Cup do well and we¹re happy to be have them as partners."

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

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