(Jon Zacks-Moose FM/energeticcity.ca)
There has been a disturbing trend in the NWJHL lately. A trend that seems to be rippling across the game of hockey. I’m talking, of course, about headshots. Not good, clean body checks in which a player crossing the ice with his head down gets caught by an opponent’s shoulder. Not battles in front of the net where a player engaged in battle takes a punch or two to the noggin. But rather, hits where a player leaves his feet to make higher contact on a body check. Hits where a player is driven from behind head first into the boards. And hits where, rather than leading with the shoulder, a player leads with his hands, stick, or elbow. These hits have resulted in injury after injury as of late. And all of them made more exasperating because they seem to be avoidable.
For the Fort St. John Huskies, it’s been a frustrating year. On February 13th, the team lost 18 year-old Kole Norris for 2 weeks after his head slammed into the glass on a hit from Peace River’s Gerry Young. Norris’ trip to the hospital was all the more upsetting as the hit came in the final minute of the game, with the Huskies leading 7-1. On March 13th, again vs. Peace River, this time in game 7 of the semi-finals, Husky Tyson Pederson was knocked-out when clocked by Navigator defenceman Jay Gaydosh. To date, Pederson hasn’t yet returned to the lineup. Huskies coach Bob Kalb says he’s seen three of his players go down with concussions in the past three weeks, none of which has resulted in any penalties called.
Kalb makes no secret of his aggravation. “They talk about cutting down on headshots and eliminating that sort of business, and then they don’t call that stuff” he complains. “And then they call the little chincy stuff, which drives everybody nuts, and then they wonder why people are upset.”
Coach Kalb is upset with calls going against his team, but more upset with seeing young players get injured. “We want to see these players protected, and supposedly the referees and the associations want that that too, but I’m failing to see it” says Kalb, adding “I’m getting sick and tired of people getting hurt on the ice, and having the referees stand there and do nothing about it.”
Whitecourt Wolverines coach Joey Bouchard agrees with his counterpart. “It’s uncalled for” says Bouchard. “Everybody is working for a living, everyone is playing hockey for the pleasure of the game – you don’t need
And NWJHL president Al Spence seems to agree. “These guys are out there having fun, and [an injury] could effect them for the rest of their lives.” “It’s just not required” he says of cheap head-shots. “Realistically, it’ always a competitive sport, but when you see the numbers, you should back off, and find a different angle.”
But, while Spence doesn’t think any rule changes are needed in the league, he does agree it needs to do a better job of cracking down on players who play a dirty game. “There’s only a few guys in the league that are out there … being too aggressive” he says. He suggests the league may table an idea that would see repeat offenders suspended, or eventually expelled.
But again, this will require co-operation from the referees, who seem unwilling to discuss the hits with the coaches. Naturally, Junior ‘B’ referees are going to make mistakes. That goes without saying. But what angers Coach Kalb perhaps more than anything else, is the lack of communication. “The referees stand there and look at this stuff, and then they’re upset at you because you say something, like you’re some sort of goof because you try to talk to them.” Referees who won’t talk to players and coaches. This is where your blood starts to boil.
And again, Al Spence sides with the coaches on this one. “It’s really an embarrassment to the referees association” he says. “They should have the guts to skate across and talk to a coach or a [lettered player].” Spence continues, “You can’t hold up a game all night, but realistically, it takes two or three seconds to tell the coach what you’ve seen, and that’s all they’re looking for.”
The NWJHL has three different regions out of which the officials work, and Spence says he’s seen improvements in the communication between the league and the head-referees this year. But, are there any consequences for refs who fail to protect the players and ensure the safety and fairness of the game?
Coach Kalb doesn’t think so. “They take the coaches to task, they take the players to task, nobody takes the referees to task. They just have their own little castles, and power trips, and do whatever they want, and anyone who complains is a bad guy.”
Coach Joey Bouchard doesn’t think so either. “I don’t think this league has gotten there” he says. “I think they’re a long way away.”
Of course, the NWJHL isn’t alone in dealing with the issue of head-shots. Players have gotten bigger, the game has gotten faster, the equipment has turned into armour, and injuries, particularly head injuries, are on the rise across hockey. Just ask NY Islanders forward Dean McAmmond, who’s missed significant amount of playing time in his NHL career, after hits to the head from Anaheim defenceman Chris Pronger, and Philadelphia prospect Steve Downie. You could sense McAmmond’s distress after he suffered his third NHL concussion, and second in four months. “People say I have got concussion problems, but I don’t have concussion problems. I have got a problem with people giving me traumatic blows to the head, that’s what I have got a problem with.”
Naturally, the Huskies aren’t alone in losing players from head shots. From the age players are allowed to body-check, all the way up to the NHL, head injuries have cost countless players more than just games, it’s cost them the serious, long-term effects that accompany severe or repeated concussions. Where a body injury may force a player to miss the rest of a game, or even the rest of a career, head injuries remain amongst the most serious in sports. When you break your arm, it heals, but a concussion can lead to lasting effects that can simply destroy a life. From Mohammed Ali’s Parkinson’s disease, to the countless athletes who have faced a life of post-concussion syndrome, head injuries are scary business.
At an Ontario Senior game this season, Whitby Dunlops forward Don Sanderson was killed, after his head struck the ice during a fight in which both players removed their helmets. The Don Sanderson tragedy reignited the debate over fighting in hockey. Immediately after the incident, media outlets across the country were inundated with pro and anti-fighting advocates desperate to stake their claim. Some want fighting out of the game completely, while others suggest it’s the only way to ensure justice on the ice.
Even at the NHL level, the discussion is front and centre, as evidenced by the league General Managers’ meetings in Naples, Florida last week. At those meetings, league GMs agreed that fighting does still have a place in hockey. But, they decided to implement recommendations to at least cut down on the number of fights. For example, GMs proposed instituting a rule that would see misconducts assessed to players engaging in ‘staged fights’ (such as right off face-offs), as well as asking for a renewed enforcement of the instigator rule. The Ontario Hockey League has gone a step further, bringing in a new rule that will see penalties assessed to any player who voluntarily removes his own or his opponent’s helmet during a fight.
But, while NHL league management continues to talk about fighting, the more serious issue of headshots has again been relegated to the back-burner. Heading into the GM meetings, NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly made no secrets about what should have been the focus. "I'm not saying there shouldn't be discussion about safety measures with regards to fighting," Kelly told TSN, "but our membership is very clear on what they feel is most important, and that is hits to the head."*
Hmmm. Players talking about head-shots, cheap-shots, dangers to the game. The league talking about fighting, fighting, fighting. So why the disconnect?
Coach Kalb isn’t sure why, but he doesn’t think the issue is in the rules. Rather, he thinks it’s a matter of enforcement. “There’s stuff in the books, there’s edicts come down from leagues, but until somebody takes the referees who aren’t making the calls to task, nothing will change.”
For Coach Bouchard, while he’d like to see better enforcement from the league and the referees, he thinks a lot of it hinges on respect among players. “We’ve got to find a way to gain respect among the players” he says. Bouchard points to the All-star game in Whitecourt as a good starting point, allowing players to get to know each other better. But, he says much more is needed. Bouchard also thinks it starts with the coaches. While Bouchard sees Fort St. John as a clean team, he points to certain teams within the league that seem to lack discipline all the way up.
Likewise, Al Spence says coaches play a big role in player conduct. “The coaches need to watch their players, and if they see the players doing that kind of stuff, they need to reprimand them right on the bench.”
The Wolverines were furious with the Grande Prairie Wheelers for several incidents in their semi-final series. In his blog, Whitecourt broadcaster Dave Dawson objected to Grande Prairie’s cheap-shots in the series, mainly because the Wheeler players refused to drop the gloves in response. “Its one thing to be blown out, and get frustrated. Especially in front of your own fans. But it’s another thing to take cheap shots on purpose, play dangerous hockey, and not own up to your actions” said Dawson on March 7th, after the conclusion of the series. Likewise, Huskies colour commentator Mike Feeney, in his blog, indicates that justice needs to be served. Referring to an incident in which Husky Kyle Porter jumped Peace River’s Gerry Young late in a game, in response to Young’s cheapshots, Feeney says “Eventually you have to take your punishment,” adding “if the refs don't take care of it, then the players have to start policing themselves, and that's when it can get ugly.”
So is fighting the answer to keeping the game clean?
Well, that’s another topic for another day. But, it does seem like there are two options. The first is for hockey leagues everywhere to seriously clamp-down on dirty hits, with penalties, suspensions, and yes, even expulsion. The other is for players to protect themselves.
Al Spence says the league doesn’t plan to change its rules regarding fighting, but he is concerned with the existing instigator penalty. “It’s pretty rash – the first time is a warning, the second time is another game, and so on. But lots of times, the ref sees who starts the fight, but really the fight started two shifts before that, with some other issue going on.”
And so, at least for now, the onus looks like it will continue to fall on the players themselves to avoid hits to the head. And, judging from what we’ve seen so far this year, that might end in tragedy. Just ask Dean McAmmond.
Jon Zacks, Moose FM & energeticcity.ca staff