Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Players Who Commit Headshots Are Not Evil

You had to know that it wouldn't be too long before Raffi Torres found himself in hot water over a headshot. Having watched him play all season, it's been clear to me that, while he tends to hit cleanly (and beautifully, at times), he also hits often (134 this season). This style of play is not without its risks. By this, I mean head hits like the one Torres laid on Jordan Eberle.

I'm not excusing it or arguing against the suspension handed down this afternoon. Torres deserved to be suspended for this hit because of what it was. This was a headshot. He did not, however, deserve to be demonized for it. Unfortunately, he was, and it wasn't fair. This was an accident. Most headshots are.

As long as there's hitting, headshots are unavoidable in the NHL. Make the punishment as stiff as you want--they'll still happen. They're a part of this game, not unlike hooking, tripping, high sticking and all the other infractions that are against the rules and still find ways to occur, usually by accident. And yet, we've somehow reduced this complicated issue down to an issue of bad people doing bad things. So often, we argue about the player's intent, as though he intended to concuss the victim when he took his first stride. Most of the time, intent has nothing to do with it. The player intended to make a hit. It just didn't go well.

Other NHL accidents are understood for what they are. Players get four-minute minors for cutting a guy's face with a high stick. There's no good time or strategic reason to take this penalty, and yet, somehow, we see double minors on the regular. That's because, no matter how disciplined these guys are with their sticks and no matter how stiff the consequences for getting them up, it still just happens sometimes. It's a fast game, and when a guy turns suddenly, your perfect position can become a dangerous one in a hurry. People understand this, except when it comes to headshots. Every one of those seems a clear-cut case of black-and-white villainy. We react to each ugly hit like the perpetrator was secretly the devil all along.

People act like every headshot is fully avoidable, like a shoulder making contact with the head is some sort of preplanned act of violence. We vilify these guys immediately, then turn our noses up at their brutality. You half expect a random search of the perpetrator's locker to turn up diagrams of the victim's skull with a bright red X exactly where the hit took place. We suddenly imagine the perpetrator twirling a moustache, making off with a princess, or petting an evil sidecat with a robotic arm.

Never, except for this sudden age of headshot hysteria, have these guys been so thoroughly psychoanalyzed: Did he mean to do it? Was his elbow tucked? In this freeze-frame, he's in the air. Did he leave his feet, or did the contact lift him off the ground? Are those horns I see under his helmet? Does reflection in the ice appear eerily goatlike to you?

The problem is that these are workplace accidents in a workplace we don't want to admit is flawed. If most headshots are mostly accidental, that would indicate the problem is with the game, not the players playing it. Nobody wants to admit that. The game is awesome right now. It's exciting. It's fast. So, rather than admit the game might have to undergo some unwanted changes to increase player safety, we demonize the players that continue to remind us of the inevitable. Effectively, we shoot the messenger. We've spent a year critizing NHLers for being unable to simply will headshots away. Maybe it's worth considering if the problem lies elswhere.

One comparison you often hear is the sweet and gentle NFL, where this same problem arose and was swiftly dealt with. People act like headshots can be legislated out of hockey the same way they've been somewhat mitigated in football, through tough disciplinary structures and, presumably, player buy-in.

This shows a full misunderstanding of the root of the NHL's headshot problem. It's not the same as the NFL's. Football is a completely different game. Most tackles aren't shoulder to shoulder. They're down lower, and adjusting to a ban on head hits is a much simpler proposition. There simply aren't as many reasons to be up that high on a guy in a game of football.

However, hockey hits are shoulder to shoulder and, in what's turned out to be a massive design flaw for hockey player anatomy, the shoulder is perilously close to the head. The sport is also twice as fast as football, and the players are usually extended, in full skating stride, and carrying enough momentum that an on-ice collision is like a small traffic accident. Going for a hit, even the slightest miscalculation or unwanted adjustment from either party--at breakneck speed, remember--means that an intended shoulder to shoulder contact becomes a gruesome accident.

It's a wonder there aren't more dangerous collisions.

So yes, let's suspend players for these hits. Let's make sure everyone is aware these hits are unwelcome in the NHL. But let's not psychoanalyze, and let's take some of the blame we're placing on the players, and place it on the game.


  1. During the third:

    Blues tie it at three.
    Stars desire what will not be:
    Hawks won in OT !

    Clay Pigeon

  2. Good article, completely agree.

  3. 4 games is bullshit. tanner glass on the 3rd line

  4. I think 4 games was pretty steep for what we saw here... I mean, I ran the simulation countless times at and the result is usually 2 games! You can't tell me this is an inaccurate tool.

  5. Absurd that he would get 4 games given the NHL precedents set to date. Two would've been appropriate. LOL "NHL wheel of justice" I love that thing!

  6. I could live with 4 if it were 4 regular season games. How you can suspend him for 2 regular season and 2 playoff games is completely beyond me.

    I think the Canucks will be fine without Torres for 2 games in the playoffs, but they could certainly use his "hittiness."

  7. It's certainly a baffling decision to suspend him 4 games; it seems to be a reaction to the media hubbub rather than an accurate assessment of the hit and others like it. Considering his lack of suspension history, the fact that he kept his elbow in and was aiming for a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, and the vulnerable position Eberle admitted he put himself in, I'm definitely surprised he got 4 games.

  8. Chara on Pacioretty was an accident, but it was still a hit to the head. Bertuzzi on Johnson was an accident, but it was still an elbow to the head. Neither warranted suspension. Good article, but I'll do you one better and say Torres shouldn't have even been suspended. 5 and a game more than enough punishment.

  9. Wow. 4 games? I agree with Ben Paine. Just suspend him for the rest of the regular season, it's his first offense and it wasn't like a blatant elbow to the head. What about Joe Thornton's 2-game suspension for that (blatant) elbow to the head of I-forget-who? 2 games, I'm fine with it. But we need him back for the playoffs to crash and bang. What about the Kyle Clifford hit on Tanev? Absolutely NO suspension for that, and I believe that was worse than what Torres did. The league is inconsistent and it bugs me. A 4-game suspension is ridiculous.

  10. Clearly Raffi should have concussed him because most concussion related hits are good hockey plays.

  11. Yup, 4 games is total BS...

    I think the head-hits hysteria is part of society-at-large's increasing pussification. Ppl expect now to be able to eliminate all risk from their lives, where before you just accepted that doing certain things may hurt or maim or kill you, but probably not, but either way it's worth the risk because hockey or coal mining or bull taunting or whatever is awesome.

    And really, shouldn't the crackdown or not be up to the players and the players only (maybe their families too) ? Most players don't seem to have a problem with hockey's physicality until they get mangled, and then they're not very objective or even thinking clearly, arguably.

    It's a rough game and has been for over a hundred years. I don't see why the sudden moral panic over players getting hurt now, except that the league's most MFinanciallyVP player is concussed to shit. Seems like no one cares as long as it's goon-on-goon, Crosby gets hurt and now it's a problem... psh

  12. It started before this season. It began back when players started actually getting diagnosed with concussions. Before that players would suffer from dizziness or memory loss and coach would just tell them to skate it off.

    The media says concussions are on the rise. I say BS concussions are just being reported now by their proper name instead of being shrugged off. Hockey doesn't look any more or less violent than it ever was.

  13. Rule 48.1 Illegal Check to the Head. A penalty shall be assessed for a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact, unless the hero who did it is on my team, in which case an awesome high-five shall be assessed

    I mean, I'm not gonna start a hockey argument, but there's some pretty dumb stuff being said in these comments. Mainly what I'm getting from this thread is: it would be better if we went back to ignoring horrible injuries; inconsistency is frustrating so we should try to make bad decisions more often; Jordan Eberle's Head is some kind of quantum element the location of which cannot be determined until something hits it; Raffi Torres does not have a history of making this kind of hit (and you should certainly not google "torres michalek intent to injure"); and mainly: accidents happen so we should not try to stop them happening. Fanlogic.txt

    Not you, Ben Paine, you're a pretty cool guy.

  14. I could live with an NHL where that kind of hit deserves a 6 games suspension (roughly considering playoffs count double), and I told the same thing when Burr got 5 and a game misc., but I'm fed up with the inconstency.

  15. I'll grit my teeth and bear it so long as it's carried through to the playoffs and similar hits on Canuck players lead to similar discipline.

    What concerns me is the thought that had a Blackhawk hit Daniel Sedin that way, it probably wouldn't have even been called.

  16. Honestly, if this is the new standard and that kind of hit garners a hefty suspension every time, then great. I have no problem with it. But compared to previous (and recent) decisions, 4 games, including 2 playoff games, is overkill.

  17. Having recently suffered a concussion myself, it sucks harder than a hoover vacuum being 'used' by a virgin.

    I have to agree with the suspension. If the NHL doesn't start handing out punishments then they're never gonna disappear. That being said, they have to apply them to all hits like this, not just Torres.


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