A belated look at the age-old debate

A hit to the head on Kitchener Rangers forward Ben Fanelli on October 30 kept him in the hospital until last weekend. While Fanelli’s life will forever be changed, and Michael Liambis, the player who made the hit, can consider his junior career over, the impact extends far beyond those involved. The hit has renewed the discussion of hitting in hockey, taking the hockey world by storm.

Unfortunately, there is no single solution that will make everyone happy. Hockey traditionalists will want to keep the game pure, stating that hitting is just a part of it, and that by removing certain aspects of the game, the leagues will be taking away from the original idea of the sport. More modern fans look at it, and while realizing that hitting is an important part of the game, they will also look to protect the players involved.

So what’s the solution? Well, first we must get to the heart of the problem. Some hockey analysts are blaming the new, “fast-paced” game that North America has established. With no one slowing down players coming into the zone, we see hits like the one on Fanelli, where forwards can fly in across the blue-line, and lay out a player without having to reduce their speed at all. And realistically, there’s nothing in the rules to prevent this. Sure, maybe it’s a minor for charging, or if the guy’s against the boards, perhaps it’s even a boarding call, but there’s no serious punishment for making a run at a player.

The media, and a handful of general managers in the NHL, will state that the leagues just don’t care enough. Hitting to the head is banned in minor hockey and in many junior leagues (including the OHL), but for some reason is not even penalized in the NHL. Now, I’m no crazy left wing, “remove fighting and hitting from hockey” type of fan, but hits to the head serve no purpose in the game. A shoulder-to-shoulder check has the exact same effect in getting a player off of the puck or setting the tone, as does driving a shoulder into a player’s head.

Another option is dishing out more severe punishments for players who lead with their hands and elbows. A clean hit is one that is led with the shoulder. While a conclusive decision is still yet to be reached in the hockey world, it appears that Liambis led with his elbow, a trend that seems to be growing in junior and pro hockey. Many argue that injuries are much more severe when the force of an arm coming up is in play, and that more severe punishments for these acts will reduce head injuries.

The last argument is that there needs to be more education for players on how to receive hits. Many players who grow up learning to play the “dangle” style of game have begun to feel the need to make moves to avoid checks, as opposed to leaning back into them. This style is promoted more by old hockey players and coaches, used to the play of the 70’s and 80’s. It’s also a tactic that is often used to put more blame on injured players, reasoning that if they simply leaned back into the check, they wouldn’t be so vulnerable.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that there is one single solution to the problem. It lies somewhere in a mix of all four of these major arguments that have been put forward. What I can say, however, is hopefully something will be done soon, before an even more serious injury takes place.

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