Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hockey needs to figure this out

What is and what isn't a legal hit? Is it permissible to blast a player in a vulnerable position -- such as having his head down -- or isn't it? For many years, the thinking in hockey has been that if a player puts himself in a vulnerable position, he gets whatever he deserves. But it should be evident by now that allowing such hits can cause serious injuries.

So does hockey want to eliminate these types of hits or not? The check UND's Brad Malone delivered to Denver's Jesse Martin during Saturday's game that sent Martin to the hospital is a perfect example of hockey's indecisiveness on the issue. (The latest reports say Martin was seriously injured on the play.)

Was Malone guilty of charging? Perhaps, but that's unclear from the video. I'd like to think that if what Malone did was a flagrant charge worthy of a five-minute major penalty and ejection from the game, it would have been obvious not only to the officials on the ice, but also to almost everyone watching the game, but that was not the case.

None of the four officials on the ice put an arm up to signal a penalty. UND continued to play for five seconds with possession of the puck. Matt Frattin had a good scoring opportunity during that time. If he had scored, would it have counted? Or would the officials have retroactively wiped out the goal when they retroactively got around to assessing the penalty they didn't originally call?

A score by UND at that point could have had a significant impact on the game's outcome. It demonstrates why it's necessary to have an established policy and concrete rules in place rather than making something up on the spot depending upon the seriousness of the injury to the player.

Either you say that some hard hits are part of the game and allow them or hockey's regulatory authorities should take substantive action to make it clear to players, coaches and officials that they will no longer be tolerated because they're simply too dangerous. It's too important an issue to make it up as you go, and hockey has put off dealing with it far too long.

Football, for the most part, seems to have figured this out. Players are no longer permitted to deliver dangerous hits just because an opponent is in a vulnerable position. As a result, sometimes players are flagged for hits that were completely accidental, unintentional or because an opposing player did something they couldn't have anticipated.

This leads to players occasionally being unfairly penalized for a situation that was completely out of their control. That's the down side of attempting to eliminate dangerous hits from contact sports. However, it is the best way to insure that player safety is the top priority.

Football hasn't suffered from attempts to take dangerous hits out of the game, and it's doubtful that hockey would, either. Hockey should follow football's lead.

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