Christopher L. Gasper

Another heads-up for the league

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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Hockey will never be violence-free, and it shouldn’t be. The high-speed collisions are part of the allure, but the line between entertaining and endangering is getting as muddled as the minds of those who have fallen prey to hits to the head that have left them unable to play, Bruins right wing Nathan Horton the latest victim.

If losing the game’s biggest star, Sidney Crosby, for half the season to a severe concussion wasn’t a signal to the NHL’s tastemakers and players that they need to make some alterations to the fabric of the game, then perhaps having a riveting and compelling Stanley Cup Final taking a back seat to another brain-rattling blow should be.

All the focus of the puck-following public should rest on tonight’s Game 4 between the Bruins and Canucks. We should be dissecting the Canucks’ power-play woes (1 for 16), assessing Roberto Luongo’s psychological state, praising Tim Thomas’s penurious play in net, and marveling at 43-year-old Mark Recchi’s revived scoring touch.

Instead, the breakfast topic from Smithers, British Columbia, to Smithfield, R.I., is the four-game suspension of Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome for his devastating check on Horton 5:07 into Game 3. Horton, who was hospitalized by the hit, is out for the rest of the series with a severe concussion. His return to play is TBA.

“Nobody wins in this,’’ said NHL senior vice president of hockey ops Mike Murphy. “Everybody loses. The fans lose. We lost two good hockey players.’’

The NHL will continue to lose players and deserved attention for its wonderful game until it addresses the problem.

Horton is the third Bruins player in four seasons to suffer a severe concussion because of a dubious check, joining Marc Savard, whose playing career might be over because of post-concussion syndrome, and Patrice Bergeron.

In the wake of Savard’s concussion last season, the league made some headway to address head shots this season, instituting Rule 48, which prohibits lateral or blindside hits to the head.

But hiding behind the notion that the Hockey Code says the hittee is equally responsible for the hit as the hitter, the league stopped short of condemning all hits to the head, thus tacitly condoning them.

The most alarming part of the explanation that Murphy offered for the Rome ruling was that it was based primarily on the tardiness of the hit, not Rome leaving his feet to level an unsuspecting opponent in the head.

“This has nothing to do with Rule 48. This is just an interference penalty, an interference hit,’’ said Murphy. “If it was immediate after he released the puck, it would be a legal hit. We have them all the time.’’

That’s the problem. By comparison, the NFL last month made it so that players who launch and use their helmet to hit a defenseless player can be subject to ejection. But it’s not just the suits in Toronto and New York that are to blame.

These hits are ingrained in the hit-me-with-your-best-shot culture of the game. They fall under the category of old-time hockey, when men were men and mangled noses and missing teeth were badges of honor. “Getting your bell rung’’ was part of the gig.

The problem, as Bruins coach Claude Julien pointed out, is that the game has changed. The players are bigger, faster, stronger, and wearing more armor than the Knights of the Round Table.

“We need to clean up this game from those kind of hits,’’ said Julien. “Somehow we got to make some changes to the rules, adapt to what it has become, and understand that the hits today are a lot harder than they were 30, 40 years ago.

“I’m supporting the league, knowing they’re trying to do the best they can. There’s no easy decision.

“This is a contact sport. You can’t take the contact out of the game. Just got to try to take those situations where it becomes extremely dangerous out of the game.’’

The reality is you can’t legislate player safety solely in a rule book. It has to be put into practice on the ice by the players. It’s their responsibility to compete thoroughly, but not obliviously or destructively toward each other. Call it pucks professional courtesy.

“It starts with us, everyone as players,’’ said Bergeron, who was concussed during the Bruins second-round series against Philadelphia by Claude Giroux. “The league can do their job, but the players we have to do our job, too.’’

Head shots such as the one that left Horton looking up at the TD Garden rafters can’t be written off as finishing your check.

“I think at the end of the day as players it’s our call when to hit someone if they’re in a vulnerable spot,’’ said Bruins forward Chris Kelly. “Everyone wants to go out there and finish their hit, be physical, especially at this point of the year.

“But also you need to realize when a player is in a vulnerable spot. On both sides no one wants to see that happen.’’

Making this situation even more tragic for all involved is that Rome was the victim of a crushing hit from a defenseless position himself during Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, when San Jose’s Jamie McGinn blasted him into the glass with an elbow to the back of the head.

“Aaron isn’t a dirty player, never has been, never will be,’’ said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. “It was a hit that unfortunately turned bad.’’

In this era of concussion awareness, there should be zero tolerance for head shots, no matter how unintended.

The NHL shouldn’t have to be hit over the head with Lord Stanley’s mug to realize that.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at and can be read at Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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