As the Stanley Cup final looms over the coming weeks, discussion about the 2010-2011 regular season's most contentious issue will lie dormant. Once the cup is hoisted, however, the debate will continue. The issue here is, of course, head shots.
The term "head shot" has been thrown around the media over the course of the entire season. Referred to because of the explicit nature of an player bodychecking his opponent in the head, the debate has especially heated up since NHL posterboy Sidney Crosby exited the ice on January 5th. Crosby, who had been hit severely in the 2011 Winter Classic, took a brutal check from behind from Tampa Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. Crosby would be diagnosed with a severe concussion and would sit out the rest of the regular season and the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2011 playoff run.
Currently, there are two camps regarding the head shots in the NHL; a side devoted to removing them from the game, and another faction that believes hits to the head are as built into the game of hockey as slapshots and shutouts.
Refusing to realize that hits to head and career-ending head injuries are ruining the NHL's players is just plain ignorant. For the league to function as a healthy business, it must protect its assets—the players.
The NHL and its Board of Governors must address the issue of head shots before the opening of the 2011-2012 regular season. The past year's strategy of dealing with hits to the head as they come, and not implementing an across the board penalty, is not working. Enforcers like Raffi Torres and Matt Cooke continue to charge at their opponent's craniums, receiving only minimal fines and short suspensions for their actions.
The NHL needs to get firm on head shots because superstar players are the lifeblood of this league. Coming off a record-high amount of viewership during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, the NHL is finally in the driver's seat to its own destiny.
That destiny, however, will be determined based on how well the league can protect its money-making stars (Crosby, Alexander Ovechin, Henrik Sedin, etc.) from serious injury. Failing that, look for the NHL to rescind into a pre-2004 lockout state of unruly on-ice behaviour and dwindling fan interest.
Hitting is part of hockey, no bones about that, but when the contact becomes life threatening, it is time to make a change.
To get players to realize that the league is serious about hits to the head, the NHL must impose a zero tolerance policy for next season. Treat head shots like cross-checking or any other kind of dangerous play. Do something to show the players and fans that the NHL's top brass is serious about promoting as safe a game as possible.
Yes, a zero tolerance policy will result in huge numbers of players being suspended from play, but that is what it is going to take to get players to treat each other safely on the ice. The players have had a whole season to try and govern themselves under the existing rules, and clearly it is not working.
It is only a matter of time before another huge superstar takes a career-ending hit to the head. What will the NHL have to say for themselves? They can't say they did all they could, because they didn't. Will we allow the league to continue acting the way it has in the past?
Time will tell, but the clock cannot tick much longer. Every game that passes, the risks of a player's career ending prematurely due to a check to the head increase. It's time for the NHL to wake up and realize that its players are falling like flies to head shots.