Weekly Reader: Should the NHL adopt a zero-tolerance policy on head contact?

Zach Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw and a concussion from Tom Wilson's hit in Game 3 of the Penguins' series against the Capitals. Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

If nothing else, Tom Wilson's suspension was a reminder that there are always different perspectives to consider in the NHL head-shot debate.

One perspective of his check on Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins appeared to show a shoulder-to-shoulder hit that produced a catastrophic injury. Everyone from his coach to the on-ice officials thought the hit was clean.

Another perspective showed that Wilson landed his hit on Aston-Reese's jaw, breaking it and concussing him. It was ample enough evidence for the NHL Department of Player Safety to harpoon a white whale that in two previous borderline hits in the playoffs had not offered them a suitable target.

Then again, according to fans and media, he did. The outrage over Wilson's hits on Alexander Wennberg and Brian Dumoulin, as well as the outrage before the NHL produced that reverse angle, was a reminder that head-shot debates in this league are frequently about who should be suspended rather than whether their actions warranted it. That Tom Wilson should literally be suspended for being Tom Wilson, because the hits he delivers have no place in a game that's now steeped in concussion prevention culture.

That's a problem: Moral and legal arguments are too easily conflated in these situations, when they're very much separate arguments. At least at this moment.

From a moral standpoint ... look, no one wants to see a guy get his jaw shattered and eating dinner through a straw for six weeks. No one wants to see a concussion, because everyone but the commissioner of the NHL realizes there's a tangible link between head trauma in sports and degenerative brain disorders like CTE. (Gary Bettman believes that the "science isn't there," because CTE develops in some cases and not others. Which is like doubting the existence of the flu because you've never gotten sick.)

I understand the limitations of my hockey morality when it comes to hits to the head. I grew up in an era of blood on the ice, during a time when Canadian media icons would put their names on VHS collections of leaping checks into opponents' skulls. Claude Lemieux, who would balance out unmistakable talent with nefarious plays that he'd never answer for (he would have loved Wilson), was my favorite player. Scott Stevens, who hit more heads than a Whack-a-Mole mallet, was the transformative player for my favorite team.

I grew up watching an inherently injurious version of hockey, and a much different game than today. There's a part of me that will forever accept there are players who play on the edge of the established rules and hurt others; and that hard hits that sometimes involve the head are going to happen. There's a part of me that will still leap out of my seat for a high-velocity collision or a fight, even know what I know now about their relative gratuitousness when balanced against long-term brain injuries.

To someone who's come to hockey after the great concussion awakening, I might sound like a crank who wishes we could still smoke on airplanes. I've long acknowledged the constant tug-of-war between my Neanderthalic lust for hockey violence and my inherent understanding that lives are literally destroyed because of it. Again: Players lives are destroyed, their health stolen from them, because of the game they chose to play and, frequently, because their opponents had fundamental disregard for their well-being.

When you look at it that way, it's understandable that many people call for suspensions for players like Wilson. For being irresponsible. For being physical to the point of causing injury.

Which brings us to the confluence of morality and legality.

I've defended Wilson's previous hits because they've fallen within the parameters of the NHL rulebook. (The one on Aston-Reese clearly did not.) When legality is conflated with morality, these defenses can sound callous, or like an endorsement of the totality of Wilson's actions. I get that. So does the Department of Player Safety. We're both judging these actions in concert with the rulebook. That's it. Let emotions guide you, and you end up creating an unending string of disciplinary paradoxes and inconsistencies. And that really should have left the process when Colin Campbell relinquished the throne.

Blaming Player Safety for not suspending a player for a hit you don't like (but is not against the rules) is akin to blaming a cop for enforcing the speed limit: The parameters are set above their pay grade. I've seen so much angst pointed toward Player Safety for not suspending players because of borderline hits, when the real anger should be pointed at those making the rules that frame them as borderline. The general managers. The board of governors. And the players themselves, who frankly cherish physical play too much to call for draconian rules changes en masse. (There isn't a team in this league that wouldn't take Wilson on it.)

Change the rules, and my reaction to these hits change. And something needs to change.

The cyclic nature of the crushing hit followed by the immediate, widespread judgment based on gifs and screenshots drowns out the play on the ice at times. And frequently, the amateur sleuthing doesn't get anywhere near the actual nature of the play, or the intent of the player.

"I think it's unfair," said Brooks Orpik of the Capitals, who knows a thing or two about borderline hits, on the trial by gif nature of player safety. "Look, there's only one guy that knows what his intentions truly are. People can try to guess and speculate. I think that's unfair. You gotta trust the guy when he tells you what his intentions were. There are times when you take a bad angle. A lot of times, its reactionary: You don't want to get beat, so you stick an arm out or something. I think that's more about a guy not wanting to get beat than trying to intentionally hurt guys, which I don't think happens very much at all, believe it or not."

So what needs to change? Rule 48 has already been redefined a few times, and might need to be refocused again to rid the process of some of its wearisome vagueness. Some people seem to like this:

But these IIHF rules still leave some wiggle room: How many clicks away from "main point of contact" is "direct hit to the head?" To wit, the IIHF reaches out to the NHL Department of Player Safety for consultation on borderline plays with regularity, because of that ambiguity.

The only way to truly get rid of that opacity in the rules is with the kind of zero-tolerance standard that Ken Dryden has lobbied for: "no hits to the head, no excuses."

Adopt this standard, and all of Wilson's hits are categorized as penalties. Any contact with another player's head carries with it a penalty and the opportunity for supplemental discipline.

No hits to the head, no excuses.

There are times I think this approach is worth a shot, and there are times when I can't comprehend everyone getting on board with it. The "no excuses" approach means that, when it comes to penalties:

  • No dispensation for height differences.

  • No dispensation for the position of the players' bodies.

  • No "main point of contact" conjecture.

  • No fighting. Seriously, how idiotic would this league look if it enacted a zero-tolerance policy for any contact with the head and then winkingly allowed fisticuffs to continue without severe consequences?

Would players, coaches and fans get behind this? How long would it take for, say, the proverbial "Zdeno Chara on Nathan Gerbe" height difference head-shot penalty to be accepted dogma rather than stoking outrage for its inherent unfairness to the vertically blessed?

Yet it's gotten to the point where I'd rather see zero tolerance than have these constant, exhausting down-to-the-pixel debates about the delivery of hits. I'd rather see "no excuses" than worry about the health of players because of "hockey plays that went wrong."

But here's what keeps me from fully endorsing it: That a "zero tolerance" head-shot policy does nothing to alleviate the most intensely debated aspect of player safety, which is the punitive phase.

All hits to the head are penalties? Great. That's not going to stop the mad online rage when a player doesn't get a satisfactory number of games for their egregious hit. An objective head-shot policy for the referees is still going to be a subjective process for the NHL's suspension apparatus, factoring in everything from injury to suspension history, as it did with Wilson.

Unless we're talking about some mandatory minimum suspension for head shots -- and I think anything like that, for any infraction, is specious -- we're still going to have situations where Nazem Kadri can skate across the ice and hit a guy from behind for the second time in a period, because he's sad the Bruins scored a big goal, and Wilson can deliver a full-speed check that's two inches from legality, and they both get three playoff games, despite one being clearly more of an intent to injure.

Like I said, it's time for different perspectives on how the NHL should handle hits to the head. But there's no cure-all for the inconsistencies of supplemental discipline, there's no solution that's going to convince every fan that this is totally equitable and, above all else, likely no way to completely eliminate catastrophic head injuries from an inherently violent sport.

But maybe we can try.

Jersey fouls of the week

From Nashville:

The one on the right is a tribute jersey to Kyle Turris, No. 8 in your program and No. 1 in your hearts. Other than the syllabic similarity, we're not sure why this exists.

Meanwhile, from the San Jose Sharks:

This is a reference to Doug Glatt from the film "Goon," and it's a terrific reference. Alas, it's a Foul: Unlike, say, a "Griswold" Blackhawks jersey, which was worn by Chevy Chase in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," Glatt was never a member of the Sharks.

Five words Americans have used to make hockey better

David Adams Richards, a 67-year-old Canadian senator from New Brunswick, made headlines recently with a passionate speech to the Senate about how Americans are ruining the language of hockey.

"This statement is humbly called 'Hockey Games U.S. play-by-play commentators have utterly ruined, which is never mentioned by those who have contracted our playoff games out to NBC or ESPN networks and which Canadian commentators have been silly enough to imitate,' or something of that sort," he said.

It was clever and jolly and all in good fun (maybe?), but not entirely accurate. Here are five words that Americans have given to hockey that are better than Canadian words:

5. Locker rooms. "Some of us never saw a locker room before Grade 10. 'Dressing rooms,' they were called," Richards said. Well, guess what: NHL teams now have a dressing room far away from the locker room where the media gets a chance to speak to them. Americans were just ahead of the curve here.

4. Pivot. Another word for center that was transported over from basketball, just like Gary Bettman was, so you know it has to be good.

3. Cost certainty. The reason we have to have linkage between revenues and player salaries via a salary cap, which came from Gary Bettman, so you know it has to be good.

2. Waffle-boarded. For decades, goalies were making saves with their blocker. Then came along Mike "Doc" Emrick, a golden-throated commentator from La Fontaine, Indiana, to explain to the world that if one makes a save with a waffle-board, then one has indeed waffle-boarded it away.

1. Sudden-death overtime. Now, with due respect to Richards, my cursory investigation into the origins of this term didn't turn up any evidence that this was an American invention. But seriously, folks: You expect a Canadian to come up with something as violent and bleak as "sudden-death overtime?" The Canadian term was probably something innocuous like "the golden goal!" or "the extra session ender" or "it's Molson time." Then came the Americans with a term that's equal parts pessimistic and fatalistic.

So there you go: Five great hockey terms that Americans probably maybe invented. And apologies to Richards for "slapper" instead of "slap shot," because that's just heresy.

Snoop explains icing

This is tremendous:

I never knew I needed Snoop D-o-Double-G teaching me about the nuances of icing. And by that I mean "attempting to explain it without using the words 'red line' at any time."

Alas, the NHL didn't ask the Doggfather to explain no-touch icing. We were hopeful that a guy with his own brands of medical marijuana might be able to make sense of it.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

Another great show for you this week, as Emily Kaplan and I dove into the Tom Wilson affair, went around the Stanley Cup playoffs series, wondered aloud about the front-office moves for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes, and served up two killer interviews: AJ Mleczko, now working Round 2 of the playoffs as an analyst for NBCSN, and Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill on winning the lottery. Stream it here or catch it on iTunes here.

Puck headlines

The first hockey team to ever play in Pittsburgh was called the Pirates. We can't even conceive of the joyful noise Doc Emrick would make upon hearing this fact. [Pensburgh]

"Buffalo's high TV ratings for hockey don't translate into big boost for NHL" [Buffalo News]

Craig Custance on the top 20 UFAs of the summer. Carter Hutton of the St. Louis Blues is an interesting name. [The Athletic (paywall)]

Vegas Golden Knights super fan Bryce Harper sent the team commemorative bats with their logos on them, which we assume they'll use to try and beat Martin Jones in Game 5. [FTW]

Remembering the late Bill Torrey, who really should be the namesake of the GM of the Year Award. [Lighthouse Hockey]

Brent Burns talks Turkey. Like, the country as a travel destination, not the animal he's probably raising along with all those snakes. [Las Vegas Journal Review]

Ryan Lambert says the Predators and Jets series is "why we put up with the NHL." [Yahoo]

Is Jim Montgomery going to be the Jason Garrett of the NHL? Alternatively, is this a sports take only people in Dallas are going to get? [Dallas Morning News]

The art of the hockey baseball swing. [Stephen Whyno]

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

Chatting with the only woman refereeing in her town. [Go Erie]

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Emily's deep dive into what NHL players think of playoff beards is wonderful.