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Bob McKenzie
11/10/2006 12:41:19 PM

In the wake of Raffi Torres' devastating open-ice check Wednesday night that sent Jason Williams off the ice on a stretcher - the third such type of hit in the young NHL season - the chorus of opinion from the NHL community has been as loud and emphatic as the hits themselves:

"It was a clean hit."
"Injuries happen, it's a rough game."
"That's what happens when you don't keep your head up."
"If you're going to penalize hits like that, you're going to take hitting out of the game."

Well, for as many players (past and present), coaches, general managers and league executives who have espoused those positions in recent days and weeks, there is one who's not necessarily buying it.

And his name is Bobby Orr.

"I don't want to see hitting taken out of the game, I love hitting in hockey," Orr told TSN, "but if someone puts his shoulder into a player's face, if he puts anything -- an arm, an elbow, a glove -- I think that player should get a penalty. Definitely, it should be a penalty. We are having players getting knocked unconscious before they even hit the ice and carried off on stretchers. How can that be legal? When did hitting someone in the head with your shoulder or any part of your body become part of the rules? Anything above the neck, it's wrong.

"Hey, I got hit a lot when I played and I didn't get hit in the head with checks," said Orr, the legendary defenceman who is now the head of his own player representation firm. "Players didn't always hit like that. To me, that's not part of bodychecking. I mean, don't you have to be responsible for your actions? If you hit a guy in the face with your stick by accident, you're going to get a penalty. Two minutes, four minutes, five minutes, something. If you go to bodycheck a guy and you hit him in the face or head, and injure him, that's legal? That's fair? That's not a penalty? I'm sorry, I don't think that is right. It should be a penalty."

In the Ontario Hockey League this season, it is. Checking a player and making contact with the head, incidental or otherwise with the shoulder or any other part of the body, is now a penalty. Two minutes for any contact with the head; five minutes if it's with intent to injure or results in injury.

"We just felt it was time to take the next step," OHL commissioner David Branch told TSN.

Branch said the decision to introduce the head-checking penalty, even for incidental shoulder on head contact, has evolved over the last five years, which is as long as the OHL has had a concussion management program that includes baseline testing for all players. A few years ago, the OHL introduced a minimum five-game suspension for flagrant head-shot fouls that resulted in injury. For the last few seasons, Hockey Canada has had head-checking penalties in all levels of hockey below major junior, but Branch thought the time was right for the OHL to follow suit.

"To be honest, I expected resistance from our people, but I was pleasantly surprised at how widespread the acceptance was and how quickly everyone embraced it," Branch said. "Our five-man GMs' committee approved it unanimously. It went to our board and the governors approved it unanimously. Hey, I'm not saying there weren't concerns. Lots of questions. What happens when a big man hits a small man? Is it fair to call a penalty on that? Are we doing something that will take hitting out of the game? Those questions were asked but it was our feeling that the pros outweighed the cons by a lot."

And Branch said he's thrilled with the results two months into the season.

"I do not believe it has diminished hitting in our league at all, " Branch said. "Not at all."

Ironically, Branch first started wondering about this issue five or six years ago, when then-OHL forward Torres of Brampton broke the jaw of Guelph's Kevin Dallman with a "legal" shoulder check.

"I think Raffi is a terrific player, a great kid, I have enormous respect for him and how he plays the game but that's when I first thought about the issue of head checking," Branch said. "For me, that's where it started."

Ironic then that Torres' hit on Williams in Wednesday's Edmonton Oiler-Detroit Red Wing game has re-opened some level of debate on the issue.

How much?

Truthfully, the vast majority of the hockey community doesn't see it as an issue.

There were only ripples of discontent when Pittsburgh's Colby Armstrong leveled Carolina's Trevor Letowski with a hard hit to the head as Letowski cut through the middle. And the decibel level of debate increased only marginally when Calgary's Robyn Regehr caught Montreal's Aaron Downey with a shoulder to the head in the neutral zone. Both players were knocked unconscious. Both players were carried off the ice on stretchers. Both players suffered post-concussion symptoms but both are now back playing.

The issue was front burner enough for NHL GMs to discuss it at their meeting in Toronto on Tuesday. But after an exchange of views, there was no support at all to pursue OHL-style mandatory head-checking legislation and the sentiment was to allow NHL executive vice president and disciplinarian Colin Campbell to dispense supplementary discipline for hits he and the Hockey Operations department deem to be over the line.

The message from the league was clear: If a player hits another player with a shoulder check - and he doesn't leave his feet or take too many steps on a charge -- and that player's shoulder strikes the other player in the face or head, even if it causes injury, it's a legal hit. A clean hit. A casualty of war, so to speak.

And as if to underline that, a shade over 24 hours later, Torres put the exclamation point on it with his hit on Williams.

For the critics of "legal" head checking, it may be as simple as expecting a little more control to be exercised by the hitters. No one wants to see hitting taken out of the game. The physicality of hockey is a huge part of what makes the game so compelling and exciting. But it may simply be that players need to exercise more control or caution with their shoulders and arms when they are hitting. There is, at times in today's game, a certain recklessness involved with the art of bodychecking. Heads are being hit because there is so little concern for the consequences. Basically, if no one is upset when there is "incidental" contact to the head, there's no need to go into the hit with any regard for your opponent. If you hit him in the head, too bad, there's no rule against it and, in fact, it's tacitly endorsed by the league and the hockey community.

All the OHL head-checking rule does is attempt to make players realize you should try to avoid contact with a player's head. It gives them something to think about before they go charging in recklessly to lay someone out. Making contact with the head is never going to be 100 per cent eradicated - bodychecking is not a precise science - but as Orr says, if they have penalties for accidental high sticks, why not a penalty in the NHL for accidental contact to the head? The OHL has adopted it and their game hasn't gone "soft." The OHL, like any hockey league, is populated by many traditionalists, but their world has not stopped spinning because there's a minor penalty for hitting someone in the head.

But for as many people who see this as a black-and-white issue - on both sides of the argument - it could be a lot more complex than that.

For example, are all clean or legal "bodychecks" created equal?

Orr vehemently maintains the types of hit that felled Letwoski, Downey and Williams weren't the norm when he played. So there is the issue of how hits are delivered. It's a subject San Jose Sharks' GM Doug Wilson has thought about often.

Like Orr, Wilson was an NHL defenceman of some note. Like Orr, he played the game for most of his career without a helmet. Wilson retired as a player in 1993 and he says he has noticed a change in how many bodychecks today are delivered. It's an "angle," Wilson said, that can't be overlooked.

"I love hitting in hockey, I think it's a critical element of our game and not one I would ever want to see minimized or taken out of the game," Wilson said. "But I have noticed that a lot of players now are hitting 'up' with their shoulder instead of driving straight through the opponent. I think any hit where a player leaves his feet, it should be penalized. And if a player leaves his feet after making the hit, well, what does that tell you? It tells you that player wasn't trying to hit through the player, he was trying to hit high. It's the elevation I have a problem with. Big hits are a part of the game, so are injuries. It's unfortunate when a player gets hurt on a hard hit but so long as a players' feet stay on the ice, as long as he drives his shoulder straight into the other player, I have no problem with that, even if there's an injury. But if the player is coming out of his skates, if he's driving 'up' into the other player, that should be a penalty."

Wilson may be on to something here. It may well be that many of the players in today's game are launching themselves at a 45 degree angle. You don't have to be a math major or geometry whiz to know what happens when a player's shoulder is rocketing up at a 45 degree angle towards a human head that is often at a 90 degree angle. It's called intersection. Violent intersection.

Certainly, in the case of the Regehr and Torres hits, the players were driving their shoulder "up" into Downey and Williams, respectively.

Hitting "up" in the NHL has become an accepted manner of hitting. Perhaps it shouldn't be. It hasn't always been that way.

Hitting in the NHL today may be analogous to boxing.

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