Morrison: And the hits just keep on comin’

Photo: Harry Scull Jr./BUFFALO NEWS/AP

The NHL has done its best to accentuate speed and skill since the lockout. But that’s made it a dangerous place to work.

BSTV is back on the air for another season. The BS, by the way, stands for Brendan Shanahan, not anything else you might have been thinking. As the NHL’s head disciplinarian, Shanahan regularly stars in video explanations of why he has—or hasn’t—suspended a player.

Again this season, he has been forced to crank out videos and hand out suspensions for assorted indiscretions, most of them involving hits from behind and hits to the head, most of them resulting in injury. It all begs one question: Why so many of these untoward hits?

Everyone knows there will be suspensions, everyone knows the damage that can be inflicted, everyone knows about the dreaded c-word: concussions. And yet the hits just keep on coming. “There is so much more speed in the game, so many fewer whistles. Everything is going full speed,” says legendary coach Scotty Bowman.

We get it that hockey is a fast, violent and punishing game—those are big reasons we all like it. And we get that bad things sometimes happen. There is always a risk. But most of these hits aren’t accidents. Most aren’t the result of bad luck. Most also aren’t premeditated. But all involve a player having to make a decision. Do I go for the head? Do I hit a defenceless opponent? So many questions, so many bad answers. “For whatever reason, some players put themselves in vulnerable positions, and in some cases guys are going too fast to hold up,” says Bowman. “I’ve seen times when guys didn’t go as hard as they could have, but still, with their speed and strength, they push a guy into the boards and bad things happen. Steve Larmer, who was a good corner man, told me he went into the corner every time expecting to be hit and would angle himself to be ready. You don’t see a lot of guys do that.”

We also understand that many players follow through with their checks to avoid both goals against and the wrath of their coach, but there’s a big difference between finishing your check and inflicting injury. “There is a lot of charging
in the game now, too, guys coming full speed from a distance,” Bowman says.

The NHL has done a pretty good job over the years amending its rule book in an attempt to decrease targeted hits to the head. And Shanahan and his department have increased the severity of punishments. But they’re still happening far too regularly.

Of course, there are no absolute deterrents in life. “With a lot of the head shots, you’ve got reckless guys who hit to hurt,” Bowman says. “For the most part, they’re players who can be replaced. Bobby Orr said the game is more dangerous now than when he played. We used to have barriers—the centre line, interference for defencemen. I just think we’ve made a lot of changes to the game, and when you make changes, you don’t know what all the effects are going to be.”

We do now, and more change is required to further address a problem that won’t go away.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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