In pretty much all types of sport, shots or blows to the head or neck are a major, and often suspendable, offense. The reasoning is clear: brains are really, really important. We kind of need them. To live. I have a theory that hockey is abandoning the idea of mutual respect; when players understood they had to answer for their actions and behave accordingly. Players used to think twice about making a cheap shot but it appears they no longer care. I refuse to buy the excuse that the game is getting more physical and players must adapt to harder and more dangerous hits. There is this thing called “muscle memory” which essentially means that one’s body eventually recalls repetitive motions. A hockey players doesn’t have to think, “Okay, I’m gonna shoot a wrister…okay, here’s the puck, okay, there’s my stick, oops, no screen, okay, there we go, let’s get my stick in the right place, feet steady, okay…here we go!” After what probably equals 20 years of practicing, the body and mind just make that shot. Likewise with checks. While the force of checking may have changed, certainly the positioning of one’s body has not. No player is ever taught to lead with their elbows so there’s no reason a person should do so out of reflex. Sometimes these hits are just poor timing and bad luck, but I truly believe many of these cases involve malice, which makes the issue that much more worrisome.
I am always astonished that helmets weren’t mandatory in the NHL until 1979. Even after Bill Masterton died of a massive head injury in 1968, becoming the only NHL players to die as a result of an on-ice incident, it still took 11 years to mandate wearing a helmet. I’m not a doctor, though I often attempt to play one on the internet, but the basics of this brain injury are not difficult to explain. Fluid which surrounds the brain insulates it from trauma in most situations. In the case of major trauma, the cerebrospinal fluid is just not adequate. The concussion comes from the brain impacting the skull, whether through a direct blow to the head or from a snapping of the neck/body. It’s typically thought that a concussion does not effect the structure of the brain, rather, the symptoms of a concussion (confusion, dizziness, blurred vision, etc.) result from biochemical changes within the brain. This is the reason why a head injury is so insidious–it’s not like a broken arm or laceration; you can’t stitch up someone’s neurological functioning and what loss there may be can take time to appear and thus delay a diagnosis.
Think about a head shot in terms of physics and biology and it becomes more than an issue of poor sportsmanship. I am constantly surprised that player safety is spoken of in such general terms. I feel as if the NHL truncates the discussion at “safety” and doesn’t delve any further. Protecting players from serious head injury transcends the idea of safety and while there may be nothing specific they can do to police this, it’s my opinion that the NHL needs to look past the seemingly simple task of protecting players from injury with arbitrary fines and suspensions and look at this type of injury in stricter sense. I hope, in the future, for the NHL to publicly address the medical magnitude of this problem. Some things require more than a discussion to get people to start working toward a solution and sometimes you have to scare people before they’re willing to seriously consider change.