NHL concussion crisis requires further rule changes

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Hockey players get concussions. This is an unavoidable fact, as inconvenient as it is unfortunate. Annually there are cries that the NHL isn’t doing enough to protect its players from the types of hits that result in concussions.

Those cries are likely to intensify with the way this season has been going.

The league has taken steps in recent years. There are now more rules related to contact to the head, but the league has stopped itself short of an outright ban on head contact.

The NHL can extoll its player safety protocol and the work it’s doing to protect the players, but it hasn’t gone all the way.

As of Monday, there were 23 active NHL players listed as out with a concussion, head injury, or upper-body injuries believed to be concussions. That doesn’t include numerous other players who have already returned after spending portions of the season in the press box with similarly reported injuries -- nor the players still sitting from injuries suffered over the last two seasons who have been unable to return to action.

So what’s holding the league back from taking further steps? Sadly, it seems aesthetics and perhaps tradition are big reasons. Both should be mostly irrelevant when it comes to the safety of players.

Part of it is a fear that more rules will mean less hitting, but there’s also fear that a ban on all hits to the head would require an end to fighting. Regardless of that fear, the NHL has to examine what it can do to further protect its players.

It should be noted the vast majority of players are fine with the way things are now. They understand the risks and don’t care. That doesn’t mean the league, its general managers and board of governors shouldn’t take more action to ensure players' safety. As more players lose weeks, months and sometimes years of their careers to head injuries and concussions, there has to be a more concerted effort to curtail such injuries.

There is obviously no way to legislate concussions out of the game. It is not possible due to the speed of hockey and the inherent contact, but there are enough instances of hits that result in or have the potential to result in head injuries that the league needs to take a longer look at.

When Rule 48 was initially broadened in 2011 to detail what constitutes an illegal check to the head, NHL general managers were happy with the wording and expressed distaste for an outright ban on contact to the head. That was due to a concern that it would eliminate body checking from the game.

It’s an understandable concern, but one that might be without merit.

The NCAA outlaws all contact to the head and neck area, dishing out a major and game misconduct on the spot. The rule is not without its flaw, as it puts a lot on the referee to make a snap decision on something he can only see once in real time. That said, the rule has not curtailed body checking in the college game much, if at all.

Rules are not going to prevent these types of hits from happening, but if it limits them, it’s a success. The league has that responsibility to manage as much risk as it can. Hits to the head and those on defenseless or unsuspecting players are key areas where that risk could be managed at least somewhat.

There have been numerous hits resulting in supplemental discipline this season, such as Brayden Schenn on Anton Volchenkov, John Erskine on Wayne Simmonds and Colin McDonald on Ben Lovejoy. Those are prime examples where the league showed the effectiveness of Rule 48 and also Rule 41, which protects defenseless players from boarding.

However, hits like those by Brad Stuart on Gabriel Landeskog, deemed a clean hit under the letter of the law in Rule 48, is on the borderline of being avoidable. Landeskog, 20, missed nearly a month with a concussion.

“For an illegal check to the head there has to be two components for the hit to be illegal in Rule 48,” Brendan Shanahan told NHL Live, explaining why Stuart escaped supplemental discipline. “There has to be two components for it to be illegal -- the head has to be the principal point of contact, and there has to be targeting. Not one or the other.”

The same kind of explanation would work for the hit Mark Olver delivered on Vladimir Tarasenko, another play that resulted in a concussion and a scary scene on the ice.

The severity of the hits is heightened due to both resulting in concussions to notable players. Both are considered good, hard hits where, unfortunately, contact was made with the player’s head. However, could those concussions have been avoided if Stuart and Olver made different decisions? Yes.

Both hits were timed in a way that ensured the maximum amount of contact would be made. The players weren’t trying to hit their opponents’ heads, but in delivering those hits, their opponents’ heads were hit with a great deal of force.

The specifics of Rule 48 do not leave enough room for interpretation for the Department of Player Safety, particularly on hits like those by Stuart and Olver. That’s potentially where a change could be made by broadening the scope of the rule and allowing the department more latitude on its interpretation.

As Shanahan noted on NHL Live, there’s more responsibility on the hitter than ever before. That might be true, but in the interest of safety there should be more.  

College hockey’s rules don’t always translate to the NHL, but the efforts to curtail contact to the head specifically put the responsibility solely on the hitter for where he makes contact on his opponent. That’s a bold and potentially unpopular practice, due to the many variables in a hit. However unpopular, it has a higher potential for effectiveness. There’s still hard body checking in college hockey, but the players are forced to make better decisions when making contact.

Even though the speed of the game is going to create unintentional contact to the head, professional hockey players have to be responsible for where and how they deliver hits.

When it comes to slashing and high-sticking penalties, players are required to be responsible and in control of what their sticks do, so shouldn’t they also be responsible and in control of what their shoulders do?

NHL players, who have reached the pinnacle of hockey due to their immense skills and on-ice awareness, should be able to handle those same responsibilities that have been placed on the hitter in college hockey.

Stricter rules won’t bring an end to concussions and won’t stop players from hitting, but if they can bring about smarter contact, there’s at least a chance the number of injuries will fall.

Rule 48 was a step in the right direction, but this season is showing another step is required. 

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @chrismpeters on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Also, subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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