Headshots & Hits In Hockey Must Be Monitored, But The Old School Shouldn't Be Vilified
TSN has been doing an online feature this whole week called “NHL Under Oath” in which Rick Westhead (the network’s senior correspondent) has been releasing video footage of depositions from owners and league figureheads like commissioner Gary Bettman, Bruins’ owner Jeremy Jacobs, and former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello regarding head trauma in the NHL. There is also a one minute clip of Mario Lemieux being interviewed below being asked if all hits to the head should be penalized or have suspensions.
TSN - In his Dec. 17, 2015, deposition in Pittsburgh, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux was never asked directly if he knew what CTE is. But he was asked about his relationship with Sidney Crosby, the Penguins superstar who lived with Lemieux for eight years.
Crosby has had multiple concussions, throwing his future in the sport into question, and yet Lemieux, who once called the NHL “a garage league,” said he wouldn’t agree with a move to remove all hits to the head from the game.
“I don’t think all hits to the head should be penalized or suspended,” Lemieux said.
The former Penguins star said he wouldn’t support supplemental discipline for all head hits.
“I don’t think it would be a good rule,” Lemieux said. “I don’t think you have to punish every hit to the head. I mean, you have a guy like [Bruins captain Zdeno] Chara who is six-nine and, you know, you have a five-nine or five-ten player, I mean, it’s going to happen where somebody might get hit in the head.”
What Rick Westhead is reporting is some powerful and fascinating stuff, but if you look past the moorings of this video presented in part one of his “NHL Under Oath” series, nothing is that surprising. Mario was a hockey player first and an owner second.
Sure, when you think about what has happened to Sidney Crosby, hell, when you think about what Tom Wilson has gotten away with this postseason you’d be surprised. I was initially considering how big of a Crosby fan I am (and how little I am of Wilson). However, let’s ask a Gretzky, a Messier or even a Shanahan that question in 2015 and see what their response would be. I bet you’d get the same answer. You may even get a similar response from a current day forward that plays by the rules. Does it make it 100% correct? No. Understandable? Yes.
As a matter of fact, if you consider how much Mario loves the game of hockey you can absolutely get where’s he’s coming from in this 2015 clip, especially if you’re a hockey purist (I’m not, but I empathize). To a player, a move like this could alter the style of play. When you are given generalized questions about if hits to the head should be legal then you’re going to get a response without context. Did this interviewer utter the words “dirty” or “illegal” in this 1:00 minute clip? Nope. Would Mario’s answer have been different if it was? I’d wager on the side of yes. The interviewer casted a wide net.
You can also argue that having someone not born in the sport could offer an objective, outsider input as to where to draw the line with hits to the head. More collaboration with neurological experts on the matter would obviously help with that. I’d argue that there has to be some sort of meeting in the middle that’s closer to the side of hockey safety than sanctity. Yeah, hits to the head are clearly dangerous, but hockey in itself is a dangerous sport, so are you going to completely change the game by penalizing all headshots, intentional or incidental? Coming from a hockey player’s perspective (I’m not that either), I’d believe the majority would be against an “across the board” legislation (in some aspects headshots may fall on the shoulders of the skater on the receiving end not paying attention), but knowing now what we know about concussions and CTE now, is it something that should be considered? Sure.
A way to meet in the middle is having the majority of headshots levied as illegal with a few particular exceptions. That way the players still play the sport they’re familiar with, but there will be a mental traffic light flashing in the back of their head too (one with ramifications particular to the player's track record). It’s not the perfect way to make both parties ultimately happy, but sports and the world we live in isn’t a perfect place either.
One thing is for certain, Mario or any player from that era should not be condemned for having a mindset like that if they’re heart’s beholden to the rink. Guys like Lemieux have done so much good for hockey (and its players) to deserve that.
Knowledge is power and let's hope the league starts to keep that in mind.