MacKinnon: Headshots marring early playoffs, but more Shanahan rulings can move game forward
Forget so-called purists, NHL has no choice but to minimize frequency of reckless hits, subsequent head injuries with tough suspensions; must help its players ‘find a different way to play’
Montreal Canadiens’ Lars Eller is taken off the ice following a hit by Ottawa Senators’ Eric Gryba (not shown) during second period of Game 1 first round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action in Montreal, Thursday, May 2, 2013.
Photograph by: Graham Hughes, Canadian Press
EDMONTON - There will be passionate debate about whether Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Gryba deserved a two-game suspension for his devastating hit on Montreal Canadiens’ Lars Eller on Thursday night.
But NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan provided laudable clarity along with his ruling that Gryba delivered an illegal hit to the head of Eller, causing serious injury.
Good on Shanahan for making the right ruling amid all the inflamed hubbub in Montreal. Great on him for stating that the pass from teammate Raphael Diaz — a so-called suicide pass, many said — was “irrelevant” to the situation.
The predatory, ‘blame-the-victim-or-one-of-his-teammates’ mentality so nauseatingly prevalent in hockey was at high volume on Thursday night, with the likes of both Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean and CBC analyst Glenn Healy literally blaming the Montreal defenceman for putting Eller in harm’s way.
One hopes the two-game ban becomes a milestone in the league’s ongoing, sometimes effective, sometimes spotty effort to modify on-ice behaviour and reduce the incidence of head shots and brain trauma.
Shanahan said he perceived no “malicious intent,” in Gryba’s hit, but did call it “reckless.” Which is precisely the point.
In light of the growing body of scientific evidence about the short- and long-term consequences of head injuries, the NHL has little choice but to minimize their frequency.
The fear for the so-called purists is this will drain the game of its physical element. That seems unlikely. A better question would be, why is the very real and commonplace incidence of brain trauma worth all the reckless violence?
“We need to have more respect,” Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec said after Game 1. “We have to find a different way to play.”
To that end, the NHL has agonized as it has tried, with inconsistent success, to strike a balance between player safety and body contact, which is central to the sport.
The Gryba hit, which left Eller with a bloody and broken nose, several missing teeth, possible facial fractures and a concussion, instantly became the focal point of the prototypical hockey discussion.
For many, including two TV panels, this was a good hockey play, a textbook hit, with a bad result. Upset with the result? Blame Diaz, who delivered that ‘suicide pass,’ blame Eller for failing to protect himself. Just don’t blame Gryba, it was argued, he just did his job.
He was the author of the hit, but not responsible for the damage it caused. This has been the NHL’s cop-out for far too long.
For others, it was just as obvious that Eller was in a vulnerable position — whether the NHL rules technically agree or not — and that type of hit was simply unnecessary.
Count me solidly in the latter school of thought. Gryba’s hit was not technically a direct head hit, as so many of now retired defenceman Scott Stevens’ open-ice bodychecks were.
It took the NHL GMs years of discussion and study, not to mention a parade of concussions, before they concluded that the shoulder-to-jaw hit on the unsuspecting player should be made illegal.
The result was Rule 48, which states: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
So, for example, Boston defenceman Andrew Ference, received a one-game suspension for his elbow to the head of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikael Grabovsky. Shanahan judged that Ference, a master of the no-look head shot, targeted Grabovsky’s head, plain and simple. No excuses.
The Gryba hit is not so clear-cut.
Gryba’s hit was not a carbon copy of the many kill shots delivered by Stevens. Video replay seemed to show the initial contact was on the body, in the hip area. It’s clear that contact was made with the head, because Eller’s head snapped back and he appeared to be limp and unconscious as he fell to the ice.
Like so many of Stevens’ hits, though, the result was a badly injured player and a complete halt to the flow of the game. Like Stevens’ hits, the puck was utterly irrelevant to Gryba. Even though the play was made in the Montreal zone, the Ottawa defenceman didn’t look at the puck, let alone try to claim possession of it, let alone make an offensive play with it.
Isn’t that the point of the game: get possession of the puck and try to score?
The question is: why has that type of hit been perceived by so many as being so crucial to the game of hockey?
The NHL, it’s true, has not developed the concept of the vulnerable or defenceless player as has the NFL, which has eight categories, including a quarterback in the act of throwing or after he has released the ball, a receiver trying to catch a pass, and so forth.
But if Shanahan’s ruling sets a precedent for players easing away from that Stevens-like kill shot, finding another way to make a sound hockey play, including a less lethal type of hit, it will have moved the game forward.
We shall have to wait and see.
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