Curbing head hunting begins at local levels
Morris Dalla Costa, QMI Agency
|The Boston Bruins' Nathan Horton lies injured on the ice after being hit by the Vancouver Canucks' Aaron Rome (not pictured) during the first period in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup hockey playoff in Boston, Massachusetts, June 6, 2011. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
It's difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, but a puppy, now that's a different matter.
Professional hockey is in the midst of one of its most aggressive campaigns in history and that's ridding hockey of head checks.
In a sport where going headhunting was as part of the game as fighting, Hockey Canada is attempting to stop it before it starts. Prior to the hockey season, it sent an excellent 13-minute video to all levels of hockey, clearly depicting how the head checking rule was going to be called.
The level of penalties go from a minor for anything that was even a brush contact with the head to majors and game misconducts for deliberate checks to the head and intent to injure.
It's no surprise as the referees and players got used to the rules there were a slew of checking to the head penalties. Surprisingly, it was the parents who were more upset about the tough new rule than minor hockey administrators or coaches.
They saw it as a necessity to curb the dramatic increase in concussions.
"Our coaches in general support the rule," said Kevin Gardner, vice-president of hockey operations for the London Junior Knights. "We've had probably the worse concussion numbers we've ever had in the last couple of years.
"We had a minor bantam team last year that had something like seven major concussions."
The Junior Knights have had their players take the baseline testing for concussion.
"We were the first association in Canada to implement the baseline testing as mandatory," Gardner said. "This is the second season, but since that time, everybody is doing it now."
Gardner says a referee was brought in to explain the rule to the coaches. It's a learning curve for everyone including the referees, Gardner said.
"At our AAA tournament in September and the start of October, I looked at most of the game sheets and we had significant head-checking calls from the referee. We took some significant heat from the parental group around the province."
Most parents would have been happy their kid's head wasn't going to be ripped off by another player, but some felt the head-checking rule went too far.
Now, there is a concern that after the initial fervor in calling head-checking penalties, referees are allowing it to slip back into the game.
It's a concern for Dave Warren who coached last year's minor bantam team that sustained seven concussions affecting six players. This year, that team has moved up to major bantam.
"The rule has helped," Warren said. "At the beginning of the year, they called any little brush by the helmet. A lot of people were (upset). Then it leveled out to where they were calling what needed to be called. Now, the pendulum is going the other way. They are letting a lot of stuff go again and we are almost back to where they were last year."
He points the finger at inconsistent refereeing and coaches who still coach "old style" hockey that continues to be part of the culture of the game.
Unlike junior hockey, where much of what happens on the ice is on video and can be reviewed by the league, there is no such review of how teams play and referee's administer games in minor hockey.
"At the minor hockey level, some of the coaches precipitate it," Warren says. "Part of the game plan is to run from downtown, to hurt you and intimidate you. That's the way they are successful. Some of the stuff they do is appalling.
"The referees need to be accountable in how they call a game. You don't know what you are going to get with the refereeing."
There is no room for half measures when it comes to head shots.
Listen to Warrren.
"We have to protect the kids," he said. "Kids shouldn't be on their second and third concussion as 13 years old. It's not right. We should be concerned not just as hockey people but parents as well."