National Hockey League lacks adequate penalty regulations

“You’re getting soft.  You’re getting soft.”  That was all former National Hockey League (NHL) player and current NHL analyst Jeremy Roenick had to say to end his argument with Mike Milbury on NBC Sports Network on February 29.

The catalyst for the argument?  Another analysis regarding hits to the head.

“And you know what?” Roenick said before he accused Milbury of getting soft, “we might as well take hitting out of hockey.”

Milbury and Roenick were discussing a hit to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang in that night’s game against the Dallas Stars.  Eric Nystrom, the Stars forward who hit Letang, was not disciplined by the league for the hit and Letang has not returned to play since.

This argument was yet another in a string of debates concerning the hard-hitting nature of contact sports.

The National Football League (NFL) unanimously passed changes to three rules in May 2011.  The definition of “defenseless player” in the rule regarding unnecessary contact was expanded to include a receiver who “has not clearly become a runner” among others.

NFL owners also made a change to the league’s “launching” rules.  The rule now includes players who leave both feet “prior to contact to spring forward and upward” and a player who “uses any part of his helmet.”

A rule regarding blows to the head of a quarterback now allows referees to make a judgment call regarding an “accidental grazing” instead of the hit being considering an automatic foul.

Despite these rule changes, a former defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, Michael Myers, is currently suing the NFL for negligence, fraud and conspiracy while handling head injuries.  Myers said concussions have affected his short-term memory and caused migraine headaches and other health problems.

The NHL added Rule 48.1—Illegal Check to the Head—in 2011 in response to dangerous checks.  This rule covers “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.”

However, the NHL has seen its own share of concussions this season.  There are currently 22 players listed with either a concussion or post-concussion symptoms.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is finally returning tonight after another stint on injured reserve with a concussion.  Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers was sidelined for the remainder of the regular and post-seasons on November 20, 2011.

So now the big question: What’s going to work?

For the first time, Milbury took the words out of my mouth: “We have to change the way the guys look at it.  You’re not supposed to decapitate the player who’s got the puck.”

This applies to anything.  There are more than a few important things controlled by the organ housed in your head.

I’m not saying to turn the NFL into a professional flag football league.  I’m also as big a fan of clean, legal hits in hockey as anyone.

No tolerance is how it’s going to have to be.  The Ontario Hockey League (OHL) has a strict policy for hits to the head.  Tom Kuhnhackl, a Penguins draft pick playing for the Niagara IceDogs, was suspended 20 games in November for a hit delivered to the head of Kitchener Rangers defenseman Ryan Murphy.

The OHL suspended IceDogs defenseman Dougie Hamilton 10 games at the end of January for an illegal headshot against Michael McDonald of the Sudbury Wolves.

Matt Cooke paid the price for the Penguins at the end of last season with a 17-game suspension for an illegal check to the head.  Cooke has a total of 30 penalty minutes this year.  Last year, he racked up 129 by the end of the year.

Football or hockey, hit someone in the head and you should be sitting.  The safety and well-being of the players needs to be the main focus for any level of football, hockey or any other contact sport.

There’s too much at stake to let it go any longer.



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