Skip to main content Blog: Checks from behind lost in head-shot debate

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

“It’s equal to all situations that happen on the ice; you don’t make something more important or less important.” – NHL linesman Brad Lazarowich.

This article isn’t about which issue is more important or about demeaning the head shot debate and all its black and white areas. It’s about a certain kind of check that happens nearly every night of the NHL schedule – not to mention when it happens in any semi pro, junior or college circuit – and how absurd it is that so little attention is drawn to it.

This hockey season is only a few weeks old, but we’ve already seen multiple instances of head shots broken down on slow motion replays with TV talking heads debating shoulder vs. head checks. It seems every time you turn on the sports channel someone is talking about head shots. We’ve been bombarded with each and every borderline hit for the past couple of years and now that there’s a new rule against it in the NHL, everything is analyzed to the point of exhaustion.

You’ve probably seen this hit. And this one. And this one. And this one. Among probably many more.

Not to mention how most fights are now becoming head shot-debate lightning rods, even though they’re the result of two willing combatants dueling in a manner that has been in hockey forever.

And because Jason Pominville was injured – a head injury at that – we’ve all seen and heard about this hit, too.

But have you seen this play, one that can only be described as garbage? And it’s from the same guy who did this only a year ago. Oh, and this the year before that.

Checking from behind, in any form, has never, ever been accepted in hockey. As a young official years ago, one thing we were taught to help distinguish between a major and minor penalty was the “yikes” factor. If that’s your initial reaction to a hit, you know exactly what you have to do next.

“I call it the “oof” factor,” said Paul Stewart, former NHL referee and current ECAC director of officiating. “I say to the coaches that when we watch these types of things live or via tape, when we get that “oof” factor it makes it almost too easy to discern the severity of the hit. You just look at it and go, ‘Aw God,’ and right away you’re going two games, five games, whatever. The difference between a minor and a major is just the “oof” factor.”

Did the checking from behind examples make you say “oof?” I know my first reaction upon seeing Maxim Lapierre’s most recent example was exactly that.

Lapierre did get a five-minute boarding penalty on the play, but there was complete silence when it came to discussion on any supplemental discipline. The same networks and experts that look at video over and over again, slowing it down and pausing to determine if shoulders collided or if a head was involved, didn’t even make mention of this terribly obvious transgression from a repeat offender.

And it happens all the time.

Just this past weekend Michael Nylander’s career was put in jeopardy in an American League game when Red Wings prospect Brendan Smith checked him from behind. One of our magazine’s AHL correspondents, Kevin Oklobzija, wrote in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that Nylander was “checked from behind along the right-wing boards and was in a somewhat awkward position when his upper body and head impacted the boards.”

Now that there's video of the hit, hopefully more attention is drawn to it. A broken neck vertebrae – and worse – is what can very easily happen on not just the most vicious check from behind, but even a soft one. And Smith wasn’t trying to run Nylander out of the building.

In the NHL, there’s a rule that specifically states if a guy turns his back to protect the puck along the boards and is hit from behind there will be no penalty. These plays seriously put players in harm’s way, but it happens all the time. Perhaps we need to rethink that rule and hand out a penalty for a hit from behind and also an unsportsmanlike call to the player turning his back foolishly in an attempt to draw a penalty. You should never, ever be legally allowed to hit someone from behind.

“I feel strongly and have said to my officials to err on the side of oppression and to make this something that the message will get through,” Stewart said. “In this day and age, because you don’t see consistent rivalries night after night or the obvious aspect of potential retribution night after night, then those who do these uncourageous things tend to think they’re going to skate away freely without retribution.

“Their regard for their opponent has to be such that, not so much that they can’t go out and play the game with the same enthusiasm, passion and energy, but at some point in time they also have to acknowledge they must be responsible not only for their actions, but also for the results.”

While hits to the head are certainly an issue in hockey, we often go overboard and break down each and every bodycheck that drops a player to the ice, whether he gets up immediately or not. But at what point do we stop looking at slow motion replay to see if a shoulder hit another shoulder and start paying more attention to garbage plays where a player hits another in the numbers and sends him face-first into the boards, violently, awkwardly or needlessly?

Rory Boylen is's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on

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