Today I spoke with an ER doctor who researches the long-term impact of head injuries on the victims' health. He told me there's a recent study of the personal histories of prison inmates on death row that shows the vast majority of them have had either a single serious head injury or a series of them at some point in their lives. IT doesn't excuse their criminal behaviour, but doctors are increasingly believing those injuries may have contributed to the personality problems that *did* cause the behaviour. Other studies tie repeated concussion to early-onset dementia, depression and volatile personality changes. In football players, repeated concussion has even been linked to premature death. Some ex-NHLers talk about still getting headaches and bouts of irritability and depression years after they sustained the original injury.
Despite all this though, the NHL general managers are just now coming to the conclusion that perhaps hits to the head should have some official consequence. They've decided blind-side head shots will be penalized with a minor or major at the referee's discretion and will be up for review and possible suspension by the league afterwards. This is where the proposed new rule loses any real power it might have had to change the behaviour of these players.
Matt Cooke blind-sided Marc Savard last weekend, inflicting a grade-two concussion on him. "Concussion" is a euphemism for what really happened, though. What Cooke actually did was slam his shoulder into the skull of Savard, smacking Savard's brain against bone hard enough to make him seriously sick. What he did was cause a brain injury like the ones people get in car crashes or by falling from great heights. The action was no different than deliberately rear-ending someone with your car or pushing them off a second-story ledge. Yet, even though the video showed Cooke driving his shoulder into Savard's head; even though Cooke has already had two previous suspensions for hitting players in the head, Colin Campbell decided not to suspend him this time.
Why? Because Campbell didn't suspend Mike Richards for nearly decapitating David Booth on the same kind of play earlier this year. If there ever was a classic case of two wrongs not making a right, it's this one. Campbell could have, and probably should have, nailed Richards for attempting to injure Booth. He didn't, with the explanation that shoulder-to-head hits are legal. Now he's using that ill-advised precedent to justify letting Cooke off the hook too, on the very day the GMs decided that kind of hit should be banned. You'd think, perhaps, with the winds of change whistling through the league's plush offices, Campbell might have decided to show some guts and punish the guy who just committed a fairly heinous example of the exact kind of hit about which GMs expressed serious concern.
The decision is a poor one and the justification for it even worse. Players like Vincent Lecavalier have spoken out about it. Even Bill Guerin, Cooke's own teammate, has said the NHL is wrong to allow that hit to go unpunished. When a veteran player breaks the unspoken rule that if you can't say anything nice about a teammate you don't say anything at all, you know there's serious concern within the ranks of those whose heads, quite literally, are on the line every night.
What Campbell's refusal to suspend Cooke really does though, is raise questions about how effective the new rule about blind-side hits will really be. A penalty on the ice, even a major, seems a small price to pay for injuring a player the way Savard has been injured. The real teeth of this new rule comes in the mandatory review for suspension by the league. If the Cooke case is anything to go by, however, that provision could end up being more like a newborn's bite than anything that could really hurt an offending player or team. Who's to say Campbell won't review a play and decide that it really wasn't a blindside hit at all; that the victim had seen the offender at the last second and that there should be no suspension?
The problem is that the NHL is dealing with semantics and language when the effect... the devastating, lifelong effect...of these hits is so much bigger than anything abstract. It's players lives and health they're talking about with those imaginary lines in the sand.
GMs want head shots banned. Players are worried they could be next and want something done. The scientific evidence that brain injuries caused by severe impact to the head are responsible for long-term health problems is piling up. The NHL should want to protect its only valuable asset: the talent on the ice. But even though this is a small first step, it doesn't go nearly far enough in keeping players safe.