Head games for NHL

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:38 AM ET

The fans, media, grandstanding sponsors and even the police have stormed into hockey’s headshot debate with demands for change.

But the only ones who can stop targeted cranium attacks are the players.

And, quite frankly, they don’t see what the big fuss is about.

The reality is there is a great divide forming as part of this issue. Those outside the game are clamouring for greater protection of the athletes, while those inside think the game is just fine as it is.

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said Saturday none of the players in his room want the rules to change regarding headshots.

They’re not calling for harsher penalties or tweaks like the ones that will be tabled for GMs in Boca Raton today calling for either a ban on all blindside hits (to the head or not) or a zero tolerance policy on headshots (accidental or not), as pitched by Sidney Crosby.

So, given the certainty that nothing concrete will be determined at this week’s GM pow-wow, the key, as one GM put it, is in figuring out “how to make it look like we are doing something.”

They’re not searching to change the game — they’re searching for an illusion. They like the game as is.

Fact is, headshots are not responsible for the dramatic rise in concussions this year.

The culprit is speed.

With obstruction and the red-line out of the game, today’s bigger, faster players are colliding at higher speeds and with more frequency than ever.

Hitting in the NHL is up 40% from 2004, and the result, inevitably, is that more players are suffering head trauma.

For proof, look no further than junior hockey, where there has been a zero tolerance policy on headshots for several years now. Yet, concussions are still on the rise there, as is hitting.

An NHL source said the league’s hockey operations will make a presentation to the GMs today showing “there has been no increase in year to year concussions caused from direct contact with the head.”

He added “most of the increase we are seeing this year is from ‘accidental/inadvertent’ situations” — for example, players being hit by a teammate or a puck and players tripping and/or falling where there is zero contact with an opponent.

In other words, with massive players zipping around in a confined space at speeds of up to

25 m.p.h., stuff happens.

Illustrating that point is an NCAA study cited by Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson that found there are more concussions with women’s hockey than men’s. Stunning when you consider hitting is banned from the women’s game.

How you can eliminate those collisions is anyone’s guess, as there is absolutely zero penchant amongst anyone in the game to slow things down. Speed is one of the great beauties of the game, as is contact. The combo is as delicious as it is dangerous.

While most think concussions stem largely from dirty open-ice hits, stats in the WHL show 70% occur along the boards where a player’s head can hit the glass or be violently jostled by a clean hit.

“We have to be very vigilant about taking hitting out of the game because that’s what they have in Europe,” said LA. Kings GM Dean Lombardi. “Go watch a league game there and you see the stick swinging and lack of contact — it’ll put you to sleep in a hurry.”

Lombardi, like most inside the game, wishes the general populace would step back, take a deep breath and realize the furor over the Max Pacioretty hit was a tad irrational.

“The hysteria reminds me of how we rushed to protect the goalie and ended up with the foot-in-the-crease rule,” he said of a radical rule change that was changed soon thereafter.

The players feel much the same way: Injuries happen, things are fine.

And so, while outsiders rack their brains in search of solutions, the principles will continue to have their brains rattled.


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