“Concussion” might just be the scariest word in sports today, and fear of the injury is palpable. The NHL is not immune from the impact concussions have had on the sports world. At the start of this season, the NHL instituted a new concussion protocol, and now that the playoffs are underway, it seems the league has let the players know that it is serious about punishing head hits. Suspensions have been handed out in the postseason at an unbelievable pace, in part thanks to George Parros’ renewed focus on removing non-hockey hits from the game.
Parros, a longtime enforcer in the league who was known for his exceptional ability to inflict pain, is now known for his remarkable concern for players’ health and safety, as the head of the Department of Player Safety. He took over the position in September 2017 and said he intended to crack down on “non-hockey plays.” It appears from his actions this postseason that he considerers hits to the head to fall into the category of a “non-hockey” play.
The suspension of four players in this year’s postseason is double the number from the 2016-17 playoffs and only one behind the total number of suspensions for the 2015-16 postseason. This is a stunning reversal of the regular-season trend, which has seen the number of suspensions reduced in each of the last two seasons, from 35 in 2015-16 to 26 in 2016-17 and 23 in 2017-18. That reduction is in large part due to a decrease of suspendible offenses. This is all the more surprising since it is typical to see the league hesitate to call penalties and issue suspensions in the postseason.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”5969″ img_size=”large” alignment=”center”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row equal_height=”yes” content_placement=”middle”][vc_column][vc_column_text]Despite the increase in supplemental discipline, some believe the NHL still has a long way to go to remove head hits. NHL legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden has publicly called for Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, to outlaw all hits to the head. In a Players Tribune article, Dryden wrote:
We need only to penalize all hits to the head, because whether a blow is from a stick, an elbow, a shoulder or a fist, whether it’s done intentionally or accidentally, whether it’s legal or illegal, the brain doesn’t distinguish. The damage is the same.
Head hits and concussions are topics that the NHL can’t seem to avoid. The spotlight on headshots and concussions often comes from public statements from legends of the game, injuries to star players or the concussion litigation that the league has been mired in for the last four years. All of these factors have made concussions and hits to the head an area of focus for the league. This increased attention on headshots has resulted in the development of a new concussion protocol and changes to the rules.
Underlying the discussion around concussions is the disagreement and controversy around Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that many medical doctors believe is caused by multiple concussive events. Several former NHL players, including Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador, were posthumously diagnosed with CTE. In response to a letter from U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, Bettman wrote, “The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown.” CTE is also the subject of much of the ongoing concussion litigation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Regardless of the reason the NHL is placing more importance on issuing discipline for headshots, the number of suspensions speaks for itself.
The plays that have resulted in suspensions in the postseason were clear infractions and, at times, outright dirty plays, none more so than Nazem Kadri’s hit on Tommy Wingles in Game 1 of a first-round series between Toronto and Boston. Wingles was in a vulnerable position, having fallen to his knees in the corner. Kadri lined Wingles up and left his skates, launching his hip into Wingles’ head. Kadri was called for a five-minute major for charging and was also handed a 10-minute misconduct. The next day, Kadri was suspended for three games.
Kadri’s hit was clearly intentional, or at the very least reckless, which is one of the specified factors that Parros is to consider under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Kadri has also been subject to supplemental discipline three other times, most recently in 2016 when he received four games for cross-checking Luke Glendening. A history of supplemental discipline is also a factor to be considered under the CBA.
Both of those factors — that Kadri intentionally, or recklessly, hit Wingles’ head and had a history of suspensions — led Parros to hand out the most severe suspension in the playoffs since 2015-16.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”https://youtu.be/mBla7x1KhWo” align=”center”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]As a result of the effort to reduce the number of non-hockey hits, Parros has issued punishments for hits that probably would not have received much attention from the league in the past (hence all of the controversy around Drew Doughty’s recent hit on William Carrier). Parros, despite pushback and outcry from some in the sport, did the right thing in issuing the supplemental discipline.
In Game 1 of the series between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Los Angeles Kings, Doughty caught Carrier’s head with his shoulder. While Doughty may not have intended to make contact with Carrier’s head, he clearly struck his face and helmet, and Carrier was injured, missing the remainder of the game as a result. The CBA stipulates that Parros should take the result of the play, such as an injury, under consideration when making his determination.
Similar to the Doughty incident, Nashville’s Ryan Hartman’s reckless hit on Colorado’s Carl Soderberg in Game 4 between the Predators and the Avalanche resulted in Hartman’s shoulder making direct contact with Soderberg’s head. Soderberg was forced to leave the game and undergo the concussion protocol. Parros gave Hartman the same punishment he handed out to Doughty, a one-game suspension.[/vc_column_text][vc_raw_html]JTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwc3JjJTNEJTI3aHR0cHMlM0ElMkYlMkZ3d3cubmhsLmNvbSUyRnZpZGVvJTJGZW1iZWQlMkZyeWFuLWhhcnRtYW4tc3VzcGVuZGVkLW9uZS1nYW1lJTJGdC0yNzc0NDAzNjAlMkZjLTU5OTk4MjAzJTNGYXV0b3N0YXJ0JTNEZmFsc2UlMjclMjB3aWR0aCUzRCUyNzU0MCUyNyUyMGhlaWdodCUzRCUyNzM2MCUyNyUzRSUzQyUyRmlmcmFtZSUzRQ==[/vc_raw_html][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row equal_height=”yes” content_placement=”middle”][vc_column][vc_column_text]While it is encouraging that Parros has taken more steps to reduce the number of non-hockey plays and hits to the head, he and the league have also missed opportunities to protect players. For example, the hit Claude Giroux placed on Kris Letang in the second period of Game 2 between the Penguins and the Flyers should have received a hearing, if not a suspension.
Many have said that Giroux could not have avoided the hit, but after a closer look, it is apparent that Giroux, while skating backwards, turned his head, spotted Letang, and left his feet right before making contact with the Pittsburg defenseman. Not only is this clearly a hit to the head, but it is also interference. Mike Rupp, a former NHLer, also commented on the intentional nature of the hit on Twitter, writing, “This is absolutely no accident.”[/vc_column_text][vc_raw_html]JTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwc3JjJTNEJTIyJTJGJTJGdnBsYXllci5uYmNzcG9ydHMuY29tJTJGcCUyRkJ4bUVMQyUyRm5iY3Nwb3J0c19lbWJlZCUyRnNlbGVjdCUyRm1lZGlhJTJGYTA4Q001Qm4xcjBUJTIyJTIwd2lkdGglM0QlMjI2MjQlMjIlMjBoZWlnaHQlM0QlMjIzNTElMjIlMjBhbGxvdyUzRCUyMmF1dG9wbGF5JTIyJTIwZnJhbWVib3JkZXIlM0QlMjIwJTIyJTIwYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuJTNFWW91ciUyMGJyb3dzZXIlMjBkb2VzJTIwbm90JTIwc3VwcG9ydCUyMGlmcmFtZXMuJTNDJTJGaWZyYW1lJTNF[/vc_raw_html][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Hockey has evolved over the years from a game of blunt force to the game of today, which is one of speed, skill and agility. This evolution has been slow, but it is necessary for the survival of the game and the protection of the immensely talented players who take the ice. The increased awareness of the long-term ramifications of concussions brought to the forefront by NHL alumni and the concussion litigation has advanced the evolution of the game. The new, faster, more skilled game of today not only is safer for the players but also has led to the development of a more entertaining sport.
Parros, who has suffered many concussions, has taken some great steps during this year’s playoffs to emphasize the importance of removing non-hockey plays and head hits from the game. Thanks to Parros, Dryden’s goal to eliminate all hits to the head is one step closer to being realized.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]