Skip to main content Blog: Stop with the head shot/fighting outrage

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The Hockey News

In spite of what some people want you to believe, the sky is not falling in the NHL.

The day after a star player is injured by a devastating bodycheck, there’s always calls for rule changes to fix the horrible injuries that plague the league. A bunch of alarmist sentiment blows up, as if it’s breaking news that getting hit in the head is not a good thing – or that hockey can be a potentially dangerous sport.

The thing that gets me is how any perceived epidemic has a simple cure: Obstruction was killing the game, so calling it strictly will give us the product we want; fighting is nothing but a black eye and installing an instigator rule will prevent that travesty. When it comes down to it, both of those changes have had a direct impact on the so-called head shots and other cheap plays we see today.

Calling obstruction has certainly led to a better NHL product overall, but even the original standard had to be cut back on a little because it was over the top and penalized players who weren’t impeding anybody. And the fast, free-flowing aftermath has allowed massive collisions to escalate.

The instigator rule hasn’t at all stopped staged fights as it was supposed to and has let players like Matt Cooke and Patrick Kaleta flourish, as they don’t fear reprisal in the short or long term because they’re protected by rules that were supposed to make everything safer.

But you rarely hear about that.

Then, when the NHL doesn’t immediately heed to abrupt calls for change, the league takes heat because it’s “behind the times” or is full of a bunch of “dinosaurs.”

It’s not a simple fix. It’s easy to shout for changes and leap at the league when they don’t happen because those voices have absolutely no accountability when the rules don’t pan out perfectly and they just move on to the next crusade.

To honestly think adopting a new, blanket head-shot rule would solve everything or that removing fighting would somehow make everything safer is naïve. Of course it won’t work out as planned; there are too many dominoes that would fall and more tweaks would be needed.

You don’t think if players can’t hit guys who cut across the middle with their head down that hip checks won’t make a comeback? It won’t be long before knee injuries set in and that becomes a target. And if players can’t fight, there are sure going to be a lot more pests hanging around and isn’t that a problem?

Whenever you hear about calls for new rules, it’s rare to hear those same voices speak about the potential impacts afterwards. It’s “progressive,” so it’s right and everything else is wrong and barbaric. That was easy, wasn’t it?

Then there’s a bunch of red herring arguments to try and strengthen the extreme point.

Stuff like: “We can’t lose star players to head injuries off hits from pluggers” and “The Olympics are the type of hockey the NHL should be.”

In response:

1. There are only about two or three devastating hits to the head, that aren’t already covered by the rulebook, per year that lead to extended injuries – and a reduction on fighting allows those pluggers to thrive.

2. The Olympics is an all-star tournament and is apples and oranges to a nine-month, 30-team league. Have we forgotten about the early-round blowouts? And of course the gold medal game was great; look at the rosters. But if you take the best seven games from the Olympics up against the best seven games from last year’s Cup final, the Cup final is better overall, hands down.

So the name-calling and righteous bickering will continue, all in the name of what’s good for the game, all contributing nothing to what should be a healthy debate about what comes next.

Of course there is an element of danger at the NHL level. Just like there is an inherent danger every time a NASCAR driver hits the track or a UFC fighter enters the octagon, NHLers take on some form of risk when they step on the ice. Trying to remove those dangers completely will have enormous impacts on the game, not all of which will make the environment safer. To blow off those consequences is what’s really irresponsible.

It’s easy to call yourself progressive on one side or claim you’re standing up for the game’s integrity on the other, dismissing each other’s argument with your arms crossed and your chin in the air, unwilling to listen. And, hey, you’ll get attention that way because it will anger so many.

But it’s more constructive to actually figure out what’s wrong and thoroughly discuss the real impacts any change would have. The NHL isn’t perfect (supplemental discipline is a joke and hits from behind happen more frequently than head shots without getting called), but it sure isn’t the end of the world, either.

Enough with these sensationalized stances – and that’s exactly what they are. Sometimes all you need to find what’s really wrong with the game is one long look in the mirror.

Rory Boylen is's web content specialist and a regular contributor to His blog appears Tuesdays and his feature, A Ref's Life, appears every other Thursday.

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