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Head Shots

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Jason Chen

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Just in time for the annual GM meetings that are going to be held in Boca Raton this week, Matt Cooke's blindside hit on Marc Savard has drawn the ire of many, many people. Head shots will certainly be a hot topic at the meetings. No penalty was called on Cooke's hit although many, including myself, assume that a suspension is forthcoming. Savard has been flown back to Boston and will be seeing a concussion specialist and will be sidelined indefinitely. Cooke's hit is eerily similar to one earlier this year when Mike Richards concussed David Booth, sidelining for much of the season. When (not if) Cooke is suspended, it will be the third suspension the NHL has dealt this week. I can't help but feel that there is a double standard in play here and judging by the recent suspensions of Derek Boogaard and Maxim Lapierre, I'm not expecting too much from the NHL discipline office.

Joe Haggerty from CSN New England has been calling for a lengthy suspension for Cooke, and it's quite clear which side he's on. If you watch the replay, and I think it's almost exactly the same as Richards' hit, Cooke doesn't stick out his elbow. It's clearly a shoulder to the head, and even Darren Dreger thinks so. Greg Wyshynski (Puck Daddy) doesn't go as far as Haggerty to call it an elbow, but he does argue that it's a late, cheap hit. It's also quite clear which side he's on:

"The Richards check, as devastating as it was, was a hockey play by a Selke-worthy forward; The Cooke Hit was a cheap, late hit by a player who excels at them."

<img src="http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/2010/03/07/savard_stretcher_big_381.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">I am a little disturbed by that statement there, because it does show clear bias. Cooke is a repeat offender and one of the most hated pests in the league, but I don't think that just because of his reputation every questionable call should go against him. Neither Booth nor Savard were aware of who was on the ice, although to their credit both Richards and Cooke came from their blindsides. If Richards doesn't get a suspension, then I really think Cooke shouldn't either. Claude Julien is obviously calling for one because he's protecting his players, while Dan Bylsma claims that he didn't see it.

Hits to the head by a shoulder are still perfectly legal and in a contact sport these kinds of things will and do happen. There is a certain "grace period" once a player gets a rid of a puck for his opponent to "finish his check" and that's what Cooke did. If Wyshynski thinks that Cooke's hit was late, then what was Scott Stevens' hit on Paul Kariya? The former Devils captain made a name for himself for his late bodychecks. Dion Phaneuf, perhaps one the league's most fearsome hitters, put it the best:

"If a guy's coming down the middle of the ice with his head down and you hit him with your shoulder, that's a clean hit. You can't take hitting out of the game. Contact is still a big part of this game and I think every guy in the league would say that."

The NHL discipline office has remained mum on the matter, which really isn't out of the ordinary. I thought their 2-game suspension for Derek Boogaard's kneeing on Edmonton's Ryan Jones was a complete joke. It was an obvious intent to injure and you never, ever go after someone's knee. It makes even less sense when they suspend Maxim Lapierre for four games after a shove from the back that sent San Jose's Scott Nichol into the boards. I agree that the play in itself was dirty and showed a clear lack of disrespect, but how can you suspend someone more games for giving an extra shove than an intentional knee? Even Nichol has somewhat softened his stance. Then there's stuff like this in the Edmonton Journal, sensationalizing the story, attempting to raise the disgust factor after listing Nichol as 5'7" (making him the league's smallest player with Brian Gionta) and 170 lbs. even though he's listed as 5'9", 180 lbs. on the Sharks' website. Nichol is expected to be back in 7-10 days while Jones' season is most likely done.

So how do we fix the problem? Well, to be honest, I really don't see a problem with the Cooke/Savard and Richards/Booth incidents. Shoulder hits to the head will happen as long as bodychecking is allowed. You can't suspend a guy for that because what happens when Zdeno Chara hits Martin St. Louis? St. Louis' head is at Chara's shoulder height. It's part of the game. Things like these are unfortunate, but given the amount of body contact in hockey the occurrences are actually quite rare. I think in both incidences the refs were right not to call a penalty. A good hit is a good hit - don't let a player's reputation or the media dictate what happens. Props to Booth for showing some great hockey code by going after Richards himself.

EDIT March 10th: Matt Cooke will not be suspended, which is a great decision by Colin Campbell, but when he says it's for "consistency's sake" I can't help but laugh. The NHL discipline office is anything but. I guess my logic that Campbell would be illogical and suspend Cooke was flawed. If that makes any sense.

EDIT #2 March 10th: Tampa's Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have spoken out and were both unhappy with the lack of suspension for Cooke. I wonder where Lecavalier and St. Louis were when Richards laid the same hit on Booth... and I really wonder what they have to say about Steve Downie.

There have been a lot of readers on TSN that have voiced their displeasure on the lack of suspension for Cooke and have accused the discipline office for being gutless and a joke. Had Cooke been suspended, it would've been a bigger joke. It was well within the rules for Cooke to hit Savard's head with his shoulder. There was nothing illegal about Cooke's play.

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That was a clean hit yo-

I agree, that was a clean hit. I don't think Matt Cooke deserves a suspension because 1) Mike Richards didn't receive one, and 2) it's well within the rules for shoulder to head contact. It was not an elbow, nor was it dirty in the sense that it was within the rules, but dirty in the sense that it was a hit from an angle in which Savard was in no position to protect himself. It is a fast contact sport in which players are vulnerable to getting hit and injured, but that's the price they have to pay in hockey.

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If they want to reduce head shots like on Savard and Booth, just make shoulder-to-head shots illegal. 2 minutes for Head Hunting or High Hitting or something. Head Hunting sounds cooler.

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If they want to reduce head shots like on Savard and Booth, just make shoulder-to-head shots illegal. 2 minutes for Head Hunting or High Hitting or something. Head Hunting sounds cooler.

Shoulder to head shots enters a pretty grey area. Like I said before, what happens when Chara decides to lay out St. Louis? Is he going to have to squat to hit him? The NHL has introduced a potential new rule that eliminates "lateral, back-pressure, blindside" hits and it will be implemented next year.

There's also the belief that zero tolerance for head shots might work because it works in international hockey. The Olympics showcased some world-class hockey and head shots were not an issue because of the game misconduct a player could receive. I don't think it'll work at the NHL level though, because there's less talent per team and more grinders and enforcers.

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