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Why There's Only One Way to Eliminate Headshots From the NHL

The officials and Department of Player Safety can't solve the headshot problem in the NHL, because incidental head contact is not illegal. The only way to solve the problem: amend the league rulebook.
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A mean hit? Yes.

A clean hit? Also yes.

Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Gudbranson, all 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds of him, stepped into Montreal Canadiens center Jake Evans for a booming bodycheck during Saturday afternoon’s game. The blow momentarily forced Evans from the contest. There was no penalty on the play.

Members of the Habs were irate after the game. Coach Claude Julien and center Phillip Danault each described the collision as shoulder to head. Meanwhile, Gudbranson insisted it was a clean play, that he’s a big guy who tries to hit players through the sternum and that he would never deliberately try to make an illegal play.

The lack of a penalty call didn’t mean Gudbranson would be safe from a suspension, as decisions by the Department of Player Safety have nothing to do with whether a penalty is called on a given play. In the end, though, Gudbranson did not get a call from the DOPS. And it was the correct decision.

Why? As is the case with so many hotly contested hits, it’s a matter of understanding the rulebook.

First off, an illegal check to the head does not equal any check that catches the head. Whether we like it or not, incidental head contact is permitted. The NHL defines Rule 48.1 as follows:

A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted. In determining whether contact with an opponent's head was avoidable, the circumstances of the hit including the following shall be considered:

(i) Whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent’s body and the head was not "picked" as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach, or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.

(ii) Whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by 
assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.

(iii) Whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.

Those railing against the hit on social media claimed Evans’ head was the main point of contact, that Gudbranson picked the head, that he extended his body upward, that head contact was avoidable and that Gudbranson changed his body position in a way that contributed to head contact. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. The key to understanding why is to specifically study the trajectory before the impact, as that what determines the angle and intent.

If you play the cherrypicking exercise I refer to as The Freeze Frame Game on Twitter, you can make it look like Gudbranson is blasting his shoulder into Evans’ head. It’s an optical illusion:

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Press play on the full clip and you see it’s Gudbranson’s tucked elbow making contact with Evans’ logo and pushing his sternum through the impact. If you’re claiming to see an upward launch, look at Gudbranson’s skates before the impact: planted safely on the ice. The energy released by the collision itself is what launches Gudbranson’s body upward after impact.

So the bodycheck is totally legal. We thus can’t fault the officials or DOPS for not punishing Gudbranson. Same goes for the hit Vancouver’s Tyler Myers threw a couple weeks ago on the Habs’ Joel Armia. You cannot enforce something that doesn’t exist in the rulebook.

But that does not mean we have to accept or like these kinds of hits. Evans’ head did absorb some hard incidental contact as a result of the Gudbranson blow, and it’s OK to say, ‘That’s not OK.’ To get these hits out of the game, however, there’s only one solution: the rulebook. Because the officials and DOPS are beholden to it, they can’t penalize clean hits that have incidental head contact right now – but they can if, for instance, the NHL Board of Governors were to approve a recommendation from the competition committee to amend the rules on headshots.

It happened before the 2020-11 season. Matt Cooke had destroyed Marc Savard’s career with a hit in March 2010 and wasn’t suspended at the time because nothing in the rulebook indicated the play was illegal. Several months later, the rulebook was amended to something resembling the Rule 48.1 we know today because of that play. Armed with the new rule, officials and the DOPS could punish illegal hits to the head.

So if we want hits like Gudbranson’s to be made illegal? Change the rules again. The next step would be to alter Rule 48.1 to prohibit all forms of head contact, including unintentional. It’s the idea Hall of Famer Ken Dryden has been pushing for several years. There’s a perception that the IIHF is the model to follow, that it already prohibits any form of head contact, but that’s actually not true. The IIHF’s rules on head hits are stricter than the NHL’s, but the IIHF book still includes this line about incidental head contact:

If the primary force of a blow is initially to the body area and then contact slides up to the head or neck area, a penalty for checking to the head or neck will not be assessed.

So what the IIHF is doing doesn’t keep players safe enough, either. As they get stronger and faster and collide with increased violence, the odds of incidental head contact likely increase year to year. So if we want headshots out of the game? The only way to eliminate them is to ban any contact to the head.

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