CHL Notebook: Head checks in major junior still a concern

Saskatchewan Blades defenceman Mark Rubinchik (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

There was ample fodder for the debate about player safety in the WHL last weekend, with both instances involving 17-year-old Saskatoon Blades defencemen.

Among the three leagues, the WHL hews closest to the NHL approach to player safety, seldom sitting a player down for more than four games. In the OHL, conversely, eight games is just the starting point on a play that crosses the line. The latter is not a cure-all, but the other two leagues won’t know how effective it is until they try it.

Only one WHL player this season, Portland’s Brett Clayton, has received a suspension of more than four games for a dirty play.

Blades defenceman Jake Kustra, who has already missed games this season due to a brain injury, was taken off the ice on a stretcher and to hospital after a scary collision in the corner on Saturday. Kustra slipped and fell a split-second before he was contacted by Red Deer Rebels forward Cam Hausinger, who was coming in full speed with no realistic chance of braking or altering his path to avoid contact with the head of his ex-teammate.

Hausinger was ejected with a checking-to-the-head major and a game misconduct. It’s fair to wonder if the spectre of a stiff suspension for a head shot would alter players’ approach to, in hockey parlance, finishing a check. That tangent also lends itself to thinking about what that does to the nature of the junior game. You still need to see someone rattle the glass by using his shoulder to propel an opponent into the boards once in a while, eh?

In the course of the weekend, the Regina Pats’ Jeff de Wit received an indefinite suspension for a check from behind on the Blades’ Mark Rubinchik.

That play involved a clearly illegal act, so sitting de Wit for a few games will be an easy call. The test, though, of any league’s willingness to protect players is what it does when the lines are frayed.

Hausinger wasn’t head-hunting and rates some benefit of the doubt, but the speed he was going in with and the relative inexperience with two 17-year-olds present a high risk factor.

Notions about hard-nosed hockey need to adapt to a game whose pace and speed of the game is so much faster than a decade ago, never mind a quarter-century back or earlier. The amount of force a 2017 CHL player can generate compared to his predecessors is much greater. There is also more knowledge about the long-term effects of brain trauma.

To be fair, people who watch the OHL probably do wonder about the unintended consequences of its more severe system of justice. Does the spectacle lose something if, for instance, a player in the situation Hausinger was in, a winger coming in on the forecheck, has to pump the brakes and rub out his opponent against the boards and glass?

It comes down to what the leagues can live with. Call it one of the conundrums of a developmental league that is presented as an entertainment product.

Otters by a nose
While the London Knights did less future-mortgaging at the trade deadline, the Erie Otters have surged into first overall in the OHL approaching the three-quarters pole of the season.

Erie is 11-1-0-0 since the deadline despite having a mix-and-match blue-line recently. Nineteen-year-old Cam Lizotte joined 18-year-old Jordan Sambrook (Detroit) on the sidelines last weekend. The top pairing of overager Darren Raddysh and 19-year-old T.J. Fergus has tided Erie over. Mid-season addition Owen Headrick, formerly of Lake Superior State University, has fortified the back end. Erie also has 10 different game-winning goal scorers in 12 starts since the deadline.

The Knights, who are two points behind Erie with one game in hand, aren’t necessarily playing poorly. They’re 8-1-1-1 post-deadline, even though offensive defenceman Victor Mete (Montreal) has been out since being struck in the back of the head with a puck on Jan. 13. There is just that little margin for error in the OHL’s Western Conference.

The teams play three more times, twice in Erie (Feb. 15 and Mar. 14) and once in London (Mar. 10)

Rubtsov shaken up for darkhorse Saguenéens
Right when the Chicoutimi Saguenéens were becoming the hottest team in the QMJHL, Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder German Rubtsov got hurt.

Rubtsov crashed into the boards last Saturday, but reports in the area’s media indicate it’s a relatively minor left knee injury. The 18-year-old has been fairly electric since coming to the Quebec League from the KHL, with nine points in seven games.

The Saguenéens were hovering around the .500 mark going into the holiday break, but are 12-5-0-1 since Christmas. Centre Nicolas Roy (Carolina) appears invigorated after his turn with Team Canada, with 18 points in his last 11 games. Moves during the trade period to pick up defencemen Kody Gagnon and Olivier Galipeau and twin forwards Kelly Klima and Kevin Klima appear to be paying off.

A mid-pack team loading up might seem novel but Chicoutimi needs something to show for the September 2013 trade with Cape Breton for the playing rights to Roy.

Canadian NHL team prospect of the week: Matt Bradley, C, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
The second half of a 19-year-old season involves real stakes, especially for a later-round choice trying to earn a contract. Bradley, the modestly proportioned two-way forward whom the Montreal Canadiens picked up in the fifth round (No. 131 overall) in 2015, is on a tear with eight goals and 20 assists amassed during a 13-game point streak. That included a four-point night during a road win against the Tri-City Americans.

Alas, for Bradley and the Tigers, the spoils of victory involved an extended trip getting back. That’s one of the charms of the biennial U.S. Division road trip that Alberta-based teams make.

It was a good week, all around, for Montreal 2015 picks. Saint John Sea Dogs defenceman Simon Bourque (No. 177 overall in ’15) has nine points across his last five games.

New name to know: Matthew Quigley, D, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
After scarcely playing in the first two months of the season, the 17-year-old who went undrafted out of bantam has held down a regular spot on the young Winterhawks’ back end. Quigley, a 6-foot, 168-pound Chestermere, Alta., resident who played AAA midget in Lethbridge during his extra season of minor hockey, should be in for a test as Portland scrapes for every possible point in the WHL Western Conference wild-card race.

Portland hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2009, the season before Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter arrived.

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