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Head shot embellishments must end in wake of concussion debate

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

With the news NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux is out indefinitely with a concussion, the NHL’s most talked-about issue stepped into the spotlight once again. Now that Giroux, Chris Pronger, Sidney Crosby and Mike Richards, among others, are sitting on the sidelines, the NHL is down a few stars.

(It’s a shame they’re out, but this annoying notion the NHL “needs” one individual player has to stop. As Wayne Gretzky once said, "I don't think any one person will ever be bigger than the game.” But that’s another column for another day.)

As players returning from head injuries are welcomed back - with articles about their recoveries and how the game is better off with them - there is an on-ice tendency that also needs to be addressed as the concussion issue mounts. And it has to do with a characteristic of this game I hold near and dear to my heart: the integrity with which hockey players are taught to play the game.

In hockey, we have something called “The Code.” It’s not an actual list of codes and it isn’t meant to be analyzed in any great depth to find its true meaning - it’s really much more basic than that. Think of it as a having on-ice common sense and having respect for the game. And more than just that, it’s about being a sportsman - or at least as much of one as you can be in a physical, fast and savage game. If you’re trying to break down what I just wrote to any degree, you’ve already failed.

Now, cheating happens in every sport, in every game, but it’s done on a micro level in an attempt to get every edge possible. In baseball, catchers try and frame a pitch as a strike, even if it’s missed outside. In hockey, we most often see this happen in the faceoff dot when the center doesn’t square up properly on the hashmarks.

But if there’s one act of cheating fans don’t stand for, it’s embellishing a play to try and draw a penalty. It challenges the integrity of the sport and flies in the face of the values skaters are taught to play with at a young age. Of course there have always been embellishers in the NHL and they’ve always been ridiculed, but it’s surely becoming more of a problem.

With the spotlight on concussions so intense from the media (sensational or not) and with the NHL doing its part to address the perceived problem, there is a new way for a player to try and get an edge: by cocking his head back on a physical play as if he’s been struck with an elbow or shoulder when, in fact, he hasn’t.

If you think concussions are an epidemic in hockey, you’ll agree it’s as much of an issue for the players as it is for the league and both will have to play a role in addressing it. The NHL instituted penalties to combat hits to the head and can instruct its referees to watch out for certain plays and crack down on them. But once the players know referees are looking for something, you better believe they’ll try and find a way to exploit it, which is an underlying problem.

So much has been written about the plight of the players and how not enough is being done to protect them, but they’ll be the first to try and use a new rule to their competitive advantage.

If players are serious about this issue and are to make an honest effort to reduce head injuries, the “snap back” embellishments have to stop. Each time I see someone pull the stunt on a contact play, I jump out of my chair - how serious can you be about something if you mock it so? Tackling this issue - if you think it is an issue - starts on the ice. No rule can be made to curb these injuries if players are going to turn around and make a joke out of it. The players have to go back to their roots (this is where The Code comes in), play through frustrating contact and impediments with integrity, and not latch onto a sensitive issue to cheat their way to a two-minute power play.

Lord knows referees don’t like to be made fools of, so eventually they’d catch on to a player’s act and ding him for unsportsmanlike conduct. That, of course, would be the one that actually landed and led to a concussion.

And the next day, all we’d hear about was the missed call and the risk players have to endure each night to try and make an honest living.

Rory Boylen is's web editor. His column appears regularly only on

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