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Buffalo Sabres News » News » In the NHL, no easy answers to eliminate head shots
In the NHL, no easy answers to eliminate head shots
In the NHL, no easy answers to eliminate head shots
Simon Gagne would be the first to say he understands that hitting and intense body contact are the nature of the game he plays.


And the Flyers forward understands nothing can be done to eliminate the danger that comes with the hitting in the NHL, with its large and fast players.

But after missing all but 25 games last season recovering from persistent effects of a serious concussion and then taking a late, hard hit to the face and head last Saturday in Montreal, Gagne is unwilling to just hope his career is not brought to an accelerated end the way it happened to his friend and former teammate, Keith Primeau.

"I don't know how many more [concussions] I could take," Gagne said Tuesday after practice, and 2 days after calling on the league and players union to do something about hits to the head.

"This is my job, it's what I do for a living, what I love and I'm not going to wait until I have three more [concussions] and it's too late," Gagne said.

And so, he is speaking out.

There has been a lot of debate recently about what is a deliberate head shot and what isn't, and if there is a way to eliminate them from the NHL. But all the talk hasn't resulted in any real answers other than these obvious conclusions:

The game is faster; the players are bigger; the equipment is made of harder material; the rules have changed; players have lost respect for each other or are not allowed to police the game themselves; and that by trying to change the way body checks are penalized, the essence of the game will be altered.

"It's tough and I understand it's going to be a tough thing to do," Gagne said.

Among those who reacted to Gagne is the NHL players association.

According to executive director Paul Kelly, who is currently on the road with director of player affairs Glenn Healy talking with teams about the dangers of head shots and working to educate players on how to eliminate them, steps are being taken, including introducing the use of softer padding in shoulder pads.

Kelly and Healy are visiting teams and showing video clips from games this season that demonstrate when a dangerous hit could have been avoided. Kelly said the NHLPA also is planning to make hits to the head the "hot topic" next summer on the union's competition committee.

"Of the 65 concussions last year, 39 were hits with shoulder to the head," Healy said yesterday. "So we are going to put the soft padding on the shoulder pads like we did on the elbow pads, which was pretty effective.

"We are looking at some better helmet technology, which I think is critical, and the third thing is we're going out - we're in Phoenix now - showing video of plays and players that show respect on vulnerable players in particular points in games.

"When the score is out of hand, or when the game is out of hand, or when a player just doesn't quite see it coming, if you can show that player some respect . . . don't target the head, don't target from the shoulders up . . . we want to change the way these guys think a little bit."

This is not a new issue.

Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford blasted the league, saying it didn't really care, after Islanders forward Doug Weight leveled Hurricanes forward Brandon Sutter with a shoulder-to-head hit last month that could have been avoided.

Last Friday, the league suspended Islanders defenseman Thomas Pock for five games for elbowing Senators forward Ryan Shannon. Shannon wound up with a concussion. The league sent a memo this week to all the teams that was posted in the locker rooms stating that deliberate, dangerous hits will not be tolerated.

All the talk about head shots and their ramifications did nothing to stop the Canadiens' Alexei Kovalev from putting his shoulder into Gagne's head on Saturday and spurring a whole new series of debate on what a deliberate head shot is and what it isn't, and what can be done to eliminated them from the game.

The debate is a good thing. The problem is there are no easy answers.

Even Flyers GM Paul Holmgren didn't see the Kovalev hit the same way Gagne did.

"It was late," Holmgren said Monday, the morning after Gagne called on the league to do something to eliminate the hits. "It was not an elbow. I have a lot of trouble calling that a head shot."

It was not that Holmgren doesn't care about Gagne. He does, as a person and a player.

"No one wants to see anybody get hurt," Holmgren said. "I certainly don't and if Simon were to have gotten hurt on that play we'd be upset and feel badly because we would be losing our best player.

"But it's a game where you have to be aware at all times and hopefully this raises the awareness level again not only of players who are in vulnerable positions and of players who are going after people in vulnerable positions."

One such hit occurred nearly 13 months ago, when Flyers defenseman Randy Jones hit Boston's Patrice Bergeron from behind. Bergeron was out for the season with a serious concussion. That hit was a combination of Bergeron leaning forward and putting himself in a bad position near the boards and Jones coming in unabated as the result of rule changes implemented by the NHL to eliminate obstruction.

Where a player used to be able to slow or impede the speed of a forechecker or defender going into the backboards for a puck, they now come in at top speed and have to make split-second decisions.

Jones, who currently is out of the Flyers' lineup while recovering from hip surgery, said this week that players are caught in the middle.

He doesn't want to hurt another player, but he doesn't want to come back to the bench and get yelled at for not making the hit or finishing his check.

"I guess I would just not hit him, or not finish my check," Jones said. "I'm not putting any blame on anyone but when I was going in to make that hit, I was expecting him to do something different. You've got to go in maybe easier and more contained than just finishing your check.

"These are injuries that are happening more and more now and we definitely need to get it out of the game."

Jones said he has looked at some of this season's more controversial hits and sees some of the same circumstances. "It's tough when you're flying around at a hundred miles an hour and you finish your hit," Jones said.

"Because if you don't finish your hit, when you go back to the bench you hear it from the coach . . . For me next time, it's more containing him to make sure that I contain and not check him hard."

From many points of view, including the players union, just having a zero-tolerance rule will not work. But they say they are determined to try.

"My guess is it won't be easily done because of the speed of the game, the force of the game and the fact that big hits do change momentum on Hockey games and series," Healy said.

"The physical part of the game is always going to be a part of the game. I guess it's the needless hits, when the game is out of control, it's a 4-0 game or when a player is vulnerable.

"Those types of situations, culturally, we would like to change and hope that with better equipment, the concussion factor will be tamped down." *



Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 20, 2008

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