Off-key in the NHL headshot chorus


A memo to those who are concerned with (hitherto) legal checks to the head in the NHL: I sure hope you’re not just fighting physics. Because you’ll lose.

I see nothing wrong with the proposed new rule against blind-side hits to the head. I’d be willing to take it even further, and adopt an easy-to-apply strict-liability standard; if you hit somebody in a way that induces unconsciousness, or causes a concussion, you sit out the next n games. This would spare us from adopting hard-to-apply rules whose enforcement might ebb and crest, vary between personalities, and differ between leagues and regions. (It would occasionally lead, like all strict-liability rules, to unfair-seeming results and punishments for actions that didn’t look unjust or vicious aside from the outcome. But almost anything is better, at least to my mind, than a rule defined by excessively complex language, taught by means of intuitive references to a mass of individual cases, and left to evolve so that everybody thinks he knows the offence when he sees it.)

Ultimately, we are going to have collisions, and concussions, in the game of hockey, and the general quality of thinking about them is pathetically weak. Almost every columnist is quick to assail the disciplinary and managerial guardians of the game for lacking his own up-to-the-minute moral sensitivities; none stops to consider how unintended changes to the game, fundamental physical factors, may have increased the incidence and severity of closed head injuries. We routinely speak and act as if the rules are the only thing in hockey that humans have control over.

It’s sometimes observed, for example, that the players are bigger and the game faster than 20 or 30 years ago. But nobody ever sorts out the relative importance of these effects; a player whose mass is 5% bigger has 5% more kinetic energy in open ice, but if his velocity is increased 5%, the energy varies according to the square, and thus increases by more than 10%. If you watch early ’80s hockey, what immediately strikes you, once you get past the sheer horribleness of the goaltending, is the relative slowness of the game. There’s no one reason for this: plenty of things have changed just a little bit, from the quality of icemaking to skate technology to the way skaters are trained. And the change isn’t that extreme, or else Chris Chelios, who actually played early ’80s hockey in the early ’80s, would be unable to draw a paycheque in his weak-bladder years. Still, it’s a factor with exponential weight.

No one wants to consider deliberately slowing down the game, but we should at least consider that its speed is part of the problem, and a part we can’t ignore if we want to address collisions at the fundamental level of imparted energy. Otherwise, as the game continues to get faster, we’ll constantly be playing catch-up with rule changes. The speed is there in the game for pure entertainment purposes, just as much as the bodychecking is. It is, without any possible question, part of the game’s danger; more speed means more and worse injuries, all other things being equal. If you won’t consider steps to slow things down, you are in exactly, EXACTLY the same ethical position as somebody who refuses to consider changes to bodychecking doctrine. Hope I didn’t just put a bullet in the head of your high horse.

Another immediately noticeable thing about early ’80s hockey, of course, is the less ridiculous padding. Armour initially introduced to prevent injuries has pretty clearly become weaponized. And the role of helmets in preventing some hypothetical background rate of concussions is poorly understood. The concussions have, by the best measurements we can make, increased as helmets became common and then mandatory.

We can’t do without helmets, since they demonstrably prevent catastrophic and immediately life-threatening head trauma from pucks, falls, and checks. But if players feel more comfortable throwing Cooke-style shoulders to the head now, it’s probably, in part, because everyone wears a helmet. We know that no change to helmet design has ever been shown to reduce concussions. We know that the forces that cause most concussions are rotational, as helmet expert Pat Bishop recently pointed out; and it’s conceivable that, on the whole, helmets worsen the specific problem of concussion by adding more angular momentum to rotational blows [UPDATE: but see commenter Gaunilon’s objection to this bit]. The increase in concussions may be part of the price we are paying for the absolute elimination of skull fractures from the pro game.

If so, it’s almost certainly a price worth paying. And, please, spare me the citations of brain-injury data from American football. NFL players are taught to use their helmeted heads as weapons, and linemen are subjected to brain injuries on nearly every snap of a game; that was a major point of the admittedly compelling Malcolm Gladwell article you’re all so impressed with yourselves for having read. (I’ll leave aside the possibility that Gladwell is overselling the findings of some scientists he got all excited about hanging out with, and since it’s Gladwell, by “possibility” I mean “extreme likelihood you could happily bet your house on”.) There’s no analogue to this brutal, repetitive activity in hockey, and no research to justify comparison with the NFL’s problem. Hockey has to solve hockey’s problems, and only hockey’s. Full stop.


Off-key in the NHL headshot chorus

  1. Any stats on international hockey? Not nearly the same number of games – but much higher stakes, I would think, if the offending player is lost for a significant period of time. Headshots in NHL plyoffs – similar stats or significantly less.

    Now, if there was such data available, and there was a significant difference in numbers (higher number of incidents in NHL regular season I would suspect) then two possible reasons I could contemplate – higher stakes in int'l/playoffs than NHL reg season; or higher skilled players in int'l/playoffs (less headhunters – if there is a goon factor).

    And if the stats proved out – what could be the remedy? The team cost/deterrant has to be raised to the same level.

  2. After reading this, there's one thing I don't understand.

    How on earth do you get past the horribleness of the goaltending?

    • He's 100% right on that point. 1980s goaltending (and that which preceded it) was breathtakingly horrible. I laugh out loud when I see it.

      Not only has the art of goaltending become more massively sophisticated with respect to technique, but the equipment has changed more materially than for any other position.

      Look at old Bobby Hull highlights and you won't have to wait more than 30 seconds to see a goalie lunge out of the way when he crosses the blue line with a head of steam and space to shoot.

  3. Btw Colby – your point about speed and kinetic energy (1/2 mv**2) would really only apply on head on collisions – the two freight trains running at each other full out. Not sure if it is a valid point about glancing (at an angle) shoulder/elbow to the head shots not going at full speed.

    • True, but in an actual check with the shoulder the hitting player actually throughs his shoulder forward into the player at impact. The ability to time this motion is one reason not all large players are particularly adept at throwing big hits. Since the players are significantly bigger but much stronger, the force delivered has probably gone up much more than the 10% estimate.

      • I didn't play much hockey, but did play MLB in highschool football. My unwillingness to try to emulate the pros by clotheslining some running back (and having my arm ripped out) probably had more to do with the lack of armour.

        Btw, if memory serves, the two billiard ball example- the physics law is conservation of momentum (mv).

        • 1/2mv^2 tells you the total energy of the system (if the player is hitting another player standing still), but it doesn’t tell you how much of the energy is translated into the other player. That would depend on the other player’s mass and where on the body the collision occurred and about 10 other factors.

          If all the players are getting larger then mass is less of an issue, so Mr. Cosh’s point about the velocity being more important to pay attention to is correct, even if he hasn’t presented a full collision model to demonstrate it.

          • so Mr. Cosh's point about the velocity being more important to pay attention to is correct,

            If the collisions occur in that part of play where a player's speed has increased proportionately – due to equipment or whatever. The pace of the game can also be increased by eliminating the centre line, higher skilled passing etc.

            If you give a guy a blindside after he releases the puck as he crosses the offensive line (say from a chasing forward coming in from the side), or as he rounds the back of the net at a controlled pace, how is that type of infraction speed (equipment) related? I would suggest the speed of those types of head shots probably hasn't changed much over the years.

          • And the real problem is not kinetic energy, per se, but transference of momentum on collision. If there is no acceleration, then there is no force, just momentum. 1st semester physics guys…. M1V1 = M2V2. Don't believe me? Go play snooker. Guess who gets the brunt of the momentum transfer on an orthogonal hit? The hittee. Not the Hitter. Same thing in a t-bone car accident. In a blindside hit the hittee takes all of the damage b/c his effective velocity on the vector of the hit is nearly zero. If Booth had been along the boards and Richards hit him like that no one would argue the hit or bring up lame physics excuses for it. Richards would sit, get a 5 and a game, but not for hitting to the head but for charging or boarding. But, b/c it's open ice, it's no longer boarding for there are no boards or charging b/c the NHL rule book is stupid.

            Taking the speed out of the game would be a bad thing, but taking the option of hitting an effectively stationary opponent in the head at full or even half speed needs to be done. And it seems that all Colin Campbell needed was language in the rulebook that would allow him to do that.


  4. I do not believe there is likely to be any effective way to ban hits to the head in hockey. The rules require that the defensive player establish a position first (I know they don't have to stand still like in basketball, but they also cannot charge). To throw an honest hit with the shoulder (standing on skates) means the the shoulder is moving up at impact. The offensive player is almost always turning or preparing to turn, which means a lower upper body position bringing the head down.

    However, as Colby almost pointed out, modern shoulder pads (and elbow pads) are designed more to deliver punishment than to protect. There is no particularly good reason for the hard plastic cap on the top of the shoulder pad except to deliver hits. Players would think twice about throwing their unprotected shoulder into a rock hard helmet.

    I believe the sports to compare are rugby or perhaps Auzzie football. In both cases, vicious hits to the head with the shoulder are less prevalent in the NHL or NFL.

    • I don't know that I would fully agree with you, at least so far as elbow pads are concerned – my elbows are both permanently scarred from a number of days-to-stop-bleeding wounds suffered simply from the right kind of impact between my skin and the old-school soft pads, something I strongly suspect never would have happened with that shell there to redirect some of the force away from the bones in the elbow proper.

  5. It's amazing how much Patrick Roy did for the position…

  6. If you won't consider steps to slow things down, you are in exactly, EXACTLY the same ethical position as somebody who refuses to consider changes to bodychecking doctrine.


    As relates to speed when hitting sure (no charging, for example), although it's difficult to have rules on a quantifiable level. Speed in general I would have to say is a difficult ethical kettle of fish. When two humans are colliding there is already a whole bunch of physics going on a lot of which could easily be dangerous. Speed alone isn't a problem until a collision occurs.

  7. "We know that the forces that cause most concussions are rotational, as helmet expert Pat Bishop recently pointed out; and it's conceivable that, on the whole, helmets worsen the specific problem of concussion by adding more angular momentum to rotational blows."

    Concussions are caused by rotational acceleration, not rotational momentum. Adding mass (and radius) to the head therefore reduces the effect since it adds rotational inertia. It's the equivalent of adding mass dm to a car of mass m: a force that previously provided acceleration a</> now only provides acceleration a(1 – dm/m). Anyway, I think the relative inertial increase from wearing a helmet is so slight that its not likely to matter.

    • Ah, right, faulty accounting by me. What I was thinking was that the muscles that attach the skull to the spine have less ability to brake the rotation because the "head" is heavier, but the extra mass gives a benefit at the time of the collision.

      • Yes, and it would also reduce rotational deceleration when the muscles brake the rotation. Tougher on the muscles, perhaps, but in no way more likely to cause a concussion.

      • I was going to make a similar qualification. If you were talking about spinal chord injuries, increased torque (T = f x d) would come about by having larger diameter helmets. So, perhaps a valid point. But rotation of the skull (where you consider the brain as essentially floating inside as the final shock absorber – slamming against the inside of the skull), Gaunilon's physics is probably more apt.

    • You are de-torquing his argument.

  8. The other part about increased speed is what it does to the MIND.

    So, leaving physics aside for just a minute, decision-making in hockey happens a lot faster now than it did in the early 80's. That's one of the reasons, I think, that if you asked Cooke at the bench 5 minutes before this happens — "hey, if you had a chance to take out Marc Savard with a legal, high-hit to the head with zero consequences?" — his answer would be "No" (or maybe I hope too much?). But, when things are going on that fast and you are a player that looks for the big hits, bad stuff happens.

    The other part is adrenalin or the excitement of the mind when experiencing speed. I've had moments coming off the ice after hockey where I sit there and think about the last 60 seconds, and it was a mind-numbing blur or frenzy (and my speed is, trust me, nowhere near what these guys are going). It's just not even me anymore and the speed is a part of making that happen, I think (but so is the "cage-match" feel of a hockey rink but that's another story). My point is, I think increased speed may also impact decision-making but not just because you have less time to make the decision but because your mind is in a more excited fight/flight mode.

  9. The elephant in the room in my opinion is fighting and head shots. What happens when someone is knocked down, knocked out or hit serval times to his face. What will be the penalty and will they have to sit out for at least a month like boxing does now after any knockout?

    Head shots is really about eliminating fighting and not body checks which the NHL believes helps the league financially re gate receipts.

  10. The goon style play is the main reason my family and I don't go to hockey games. We didn't even let the kids play hockey when they were growing up. There is no/no excuse for what happened to Sidney Crosby. The NHL needs to look at 1 year to lifetime bans to eliminate these sickening and disgusting events.

  11. I am in complete agreement with Andy's comments about hockey now being goon style play. All of the reasons that you have given for hockey being played by bigger players that are faster skaters leading to injuries as being inevitable may or may not account for what is happening in hockey as far as injuries, particularly head injuries, is concerned. What seems to be lacking from your reasoning is the thought that goes through a players head immediately prior to hitting another player, and the intent that he has in his mind when doing so. You have only to look at the replays of all of these types of head injuries and you can see it coming, the puck carrying player being intent on offence is usually skating with his head lower than the oncoming player who is lining him up to take him out of the play, if not out of the game, or games. Hockey has become a goon style sport and refusal to deal with the problem has led us to the place where little if any punishment is handed out to the offending player or the team he plays for. In watching this deterioration over a period of years it has become clearly evident that the league does not want to change anything to fix the problem. Instead of trying to explain scientifically what happens to someone's head when they are hit I would suggest you would be doing hockey a much greater service by making sure that when someone does hit someone else's head they would pay a very heavy price for it. I do not expect any such action to be taken by anyone for fear that it may slow the game down. If that were to happen I believe it would cost the league money in attendance and or viewership and we both know that is not about to happen. Just please stop trying to justify this goon style approach to hockey. These head injuries are a major problem and they are going to get worse. The problem can be fixed but it will take someone with intestinal fortitude to do so. I challenge you to use whatever influence you have to force the league to impose severe penalties for anyone causing head injuries.

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