Sports

Picking Splinters: Head Shots in the NHL

BOSTON – It was just over five minutes into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals and all of the occupants of the standing-room-only press box at TD Garden were alternating their gaze between the ice and the monitors perched over their work stations. On the ice, emergency medical personnel were securing dazed Boston Bruins winger Nathan Horton to a stretcher for transport to the hospital. On the monitor, replay after replay showed Vancouver Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome leaping off the ice to plant his shoulder pad squarely under Horton’s jaw while the winger was looking the other direction.

The resulting hit was catastrophic. Horton was dropped to the ice, his head slamming down and bouncing off the sheet. As he lay on the ice, his right arm eerily remained extended before slowly dropping back to his chest just before the training staff arrived at his side.

The media reaction in the press box was interesting. The majority were arguing the hit fell under the NHL’s Rule 48, which prohibits blindside hits to the head. But not everyone was so sure. Some felt that the hit came from the front and only appeared to be a blindside blow because Horton didn’t have his head up, as he should have. They argued that, at most, the penalty should have been two-minutes for interference. Nothing more.

Welcome to the world of the modern day NHL, a world that is hazy, murky, blurry, and any other adjective that describes a lack of clarity.

On one hand, the league is eager to continue to foster a fast-paced, hard-hitting environment that has been winning over fans and should draw even more if the NBA and NFL remain locked out next fall. On the other, the league is confronted with mounting evidence regarding the awful effects of concussions, evidence that suggests such brain trauma not only severely alters player’s careers, but their lives at home.

It’s a delicate balance the NHL has attempted to maintain, trying to protect its players while also not legislating hitting out of the game. The compromise that was struck before this season was Rule 48: You cannot hit a player in the head if you come from behind him. And there lies the rub in the Aaron Rome-Nathan Horton hit. Rome didn’t come from behind.

And yet, after Tuesday’s league ruling, he will be suspended four games and miss the remainder of the Stanley Cup Finals.

In the wake of the ruling, the media members I spoke to are somewhat divided. Some think the league got it right. Others think it didn’t even warrant a suspension. The only consensus the media seems to have reached is that no one wants the job currently assigned to Mike Murphy, the NHL’s temporary discipline czar.

Consider all the factors Murphy and the league had to consider before issuing the suspension: Horton is reportedly out for the series, so should Rome be forced out as well? The usual suspension is a game or two for this type of hit, but playoff games are more valuable than regular season games, so should that reduce the penalty? On the other hand, the absence of Horton, the Bruins’ second-leading scorer in the playoffs, will be felt more keenly than Rome’s, so should that increase the defenseman’s penalty? The hit was not from the blindside, but Rome did leave his feet and seemed to deliberately target Horton’s head well after Horton had gotten rid of the puck. So how does that all fit together? A four-game ban per the league and another example that there is no standard ruling in cases like this.

But there should be. The NHL should strive to make such instances as rare as possible and decrease the gray areas surrounding the rule. The simple solution: Ban all head shots. End of story. If you intentionally hit another player in the head, it’s an automatic suspension, with the league reserving the right to strengthen the penalty if they believe there was an intent to injure.

Would that eliminate the fog that clouds issues of this kind? Not entirely. Would it prevent all head shots? Unlikely. But at least we would have a clear rule that helps protect the players and doesn’t allow as much room for interpretation. In a physical, fast-paced game like hockey, that might be the best anyone can hope for.