NHL Can’t Rush a Headshot Rule

So the NHL is trying to rush a headshot rule into production before the playoffs.

It’s important that the NHL protect its players but this really isn’t the type of thing you want to rush into. The headshot issue has implications that can ultimately impact the future health of hundreds, if not even thousands, of players.

First, lets think about the types of headshots we see in a given game:

  1. Dirty headshot: Player A is trying to make a play and is basically attacked by Player B
  2. Inattentive headshot: Player A has his head down and is basically attacked by Player B
  3. Inadvertent headshot: Player A has his head down, is hit by Player B, and ends up with a shoulder in his head or his head in the boards because he wasn’t paying attention.

So the dirty headshot is a no-brainer to call. Player B is reckless and guilty and deserves whatever punishment the league dreams up.

But what about the inattentive headshot? Would Player A have been attacked if he was paying more attention? Does he share some of the blame by making himself an easy target?

And what about the inadvertent headshot? Player B seems to have made a clean hit that resulted in a headshot. What was Player B’s intent?

And now, let’s say the NHL outlaws all headshots, so in any of the three scenarios, Player B is punished. What has Player A learned? In two of the three scenarios, he’s learned to keep his head down around the play. So maybe next time he’s the victim of an inadvertent headshot, he’s seriously hurt. So Player B will be punished but Player A’s career might be over.

If the NHL takes too much responsibility from the players getting hit, the league will teach players it’s OK to keep your head down and to not pay attention to on-ice play. And that’s where players can get seriously hurt.

The idea of punishing headshots is to protect players. And that’s an important idea. But as long as players ignore what’s going on around them, they’re going to be susceptible to headshots, deliberate ones or inadvertent ones.

For instance, I’m not a huge fan of Mike Richards notorious open-ice hit on David Booth. But I’m not sure if Richards meant to get his shoulder up that high or if he was expecting Booth to see him and brace himself. It was inadvertent or inattentive but not dirty. And it probably doesn’t happen if Booth pays more attention to the play around him.

A rule change will make sure players like Richards are punished after hits but will they protect players? Maybe if there was a serious punishment at stake, Richards would have backed off of that hit, but I’m not convinced he knew it would end up a headshot.

So at best, a rushed headshot rule change will deter dirty hits, make players think twice about checks in general, and will teach players they don’t need to keep their heads up. I’m not sure the NHL wants potentially more headshots coupled with less hitting.

If the league takes its time on a rule change, and reaches out to players about the importance of not putting themselves in the position to be the victim of a headshot, they can figure out something that will protect players and that will teach players how to protect themselves. Something well thought out will protect players and will keep the game physical.

It’s not about blaming the victim — it’s about helping players before they’re victims, not afterward.