Sharks Gameday: On Heatley and Headshots

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With news of Dany Heatley’s suspension making waves across the NHL, and the annual General Manager meetings focused on head shots and concussions, it's time to revisit a subject that seems to be making headlines every week or so this season.

First things first of course—Heatley’s suspension for two games is warranted. As we mentioned in our recap, the puck was well on its way out of the zone, Heatley approaches Steve Ott from behind, raises his elbow to target the head, and does not attempt to make a hockey play on Ott by initiating body contact.

Whether or not Steve Ott embellished the hit is secondary. Whether or not Heatley’s elbow makes direct contact with Ott’s head is secondary as well. The play was clearly premeditated and malicious to the extent that Heatley was attempting to catch Ott up high with an elbow, and for all intents and purposes, that is the criteria the National Hockey League will be applying going forward in regards to punishments according to Rule 48.

In a League that has played fast and loose with the subject of concussions in the past, subjecting itself to parody with their perplexing decisions after spinning the rickety Wheel of Justice, it’s refreshing to see them get this one right. Furthermore, it’s illuminating to see Douglas Murray’s hits go unpunished considering they were legitimate hockey plays with no intention of targeting the head. The NHL will be walking a fine line in the future when it comes to concussion syndromes, and unfortunately, the physical roots of the sport will lend itself to concerns about brain trauma for the entirety of its existence.

It’s the nature of the beast, as unfortunate as it is and will continue to be. Cutting out plays such as Heatley’s are a good step forward. The same can be said for new protocol that requires a player to sit out for fifteen minutes of a game after being dealt a head shot.

However, it's clear that much more can be done.

Sharks Captain Joe Thornton, who was suspended for two games earlier this season after a hit on the St. Louis Blues David Perron, has spoken out on the issue of transparency in the disciplinary process before. Following his suspension in early November, Joe's agent and brother John spoke to Pierre Lebrun of ESPN about the process utilized by the League.

"When Joe asked the league, directly, what he could have done differently, they could not clearly explain," John said. "I guess being 5'9" was Joe's only solution to avoid this suspension. We are extremely disappointed with the league's decision, and feel the continuing uncertainty with league actions will only hurt the fans of the NHL."

Joe re-iterated those feelings earlier this month following the non-suspension of Zdeno Chara after a hit on Max Pacioretty, questioning the motives behind some of the disciplinary actions taken by the League.

"I really don’t know how the disciplinary people take things into consideration because it always just seems to be all over the place, but it is what it is," Thornton told David Pollak of Working The Corners. "We watch games every night. Some things are ignored and some things are called and everybody’s kind of left wondering why. Something about Boston and disciplinary action, they’re on their side. I’m not sure why that is."

Whether Thornton was speaking out of frustration, sadness, or anger doesn’t really matter. The fact of the matter is that the NHL has one of its highest profile stars expressing immense dissatisfaction with the way discipline is handled by the League. And that is an issue, both from a Public Relations level and, most importantly, a player safety level.

The immense literature surrounding concussions in the sport has reached a fevered pitch. Protecting players in the future requires more than discipline after the transgression has been completed—it requires precise explanations that highlight what constitutes an illegal play, as well as a backlog of video made available to the players and public after each suspension has been made.

The idea is simple-- a video of suspensions, complete with audio commentary throughout, explaining why each incident was suspendable according to the current NHL Rulebook.

With all of the confusion surrounding the Wheel of Justice over the years, this would be a great way for the NHL to directly explain to their consumer, as well as the organizations effected by supplementary discipline, why a certain ruling was given out. Clarity breeds understanding, and understanding for the players and fans can never be considered a detriment to the game. A minute long video breaking down the play, from the rules to the methods involved that warranted discipline, can only be a good thing for the League.

We're going to assume here that Mike Murphy and Colin Campbell went over the tape for (at the very least) fifteen minutes before reaching their ruling-- it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. In that time frame they looked at every angle available to them, took into account the game situation, analyzed body positioning, scrutinized the rulebook, and went over the offending player's disciplinary history. Condensing the notes and analysis from those meetings into a minute long video released to the players and press would be a quick process to undergo. It explains what they saw, how they came to their conclusion, and why they chose to implement (or not implement) punishment in the way that they did...

...The 2010-2011 new rules video released by the League at the beginning of the season was a good step for the NHL, and allowed them to attempt to define what a head shot is and isn't. However, hockey is an extremely fluid sport-- players come in at varying angles, contact is made at different points of the body, and the play progresses at different speeds. Each situation is different, and needs to be explained as such. The more the League is able to communicate that to their players by providing an increasingly larger body of work that coaches and players have to work with in regard to these rules, the better understanding all involved can have of what constitutes a suspendable offense and what does not.

>> "Backing a League approved video explaining suspensions"

There’s no doubt that the sport will continue to struggle with head injuries for the conceivable future. But this solution offers a clear example of what is and is not allowable, as well as providing a running dialogue with the players during the course of a season that provides them with information that allows them to make informed decisions in regards to their opponents safety.

Furthermore, distributing a video that shows the repercussions of head trauma would be an effective tool that discourages reckless play. Shock value is a legitimate solution that can make a player think twice before targeting an opponent’s head, as well as help to develop a mutual respect for an individual's future that transcends what color jersey he may happening to be wearing that night.

The NHL has put their best foot forward in regards to head shots over the last forty eight hours.

Which would be considered groundbreaking if they weren’t already three steps behind.

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