2011 NHL All-Star Game: Sidney Crosby's absence sparks debate over hits to the head

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 12:13 AM

IN RALEIGH, N.C. The NHL's glitterati have gathered here for All-Star Weekend that kicked off Friday, but perhaps the most conspicuous luminary is the one who isn't here. Arguably the best player in the game today and the face of the league, Sidney Crosby will not participate in any of the weekend's events, remaining in Pittsburgh while he recovers from a concussion he suffered in early January.

Crosby is far from the only player to miss time or even the all-star game because of a concussion - according to team releases and media reports, more than 30 players have suffered concussions this season, including Edmonton all-star Ales Hemsky - but the Penguins star's injury has sparked greater debate about how the NHL regulates hits to the head and handles a growing need for concussion awareness.

For several years, as medical knowledge about head injuries has advanced, preventing concussions has become a priority for several sports. This fall, the NFL cracked down by issuing strict fines and threatening suspension without pay for a hit to the head of an opponent, regardless of whether it is a first offense.

Most current and former NHL players believe it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of head injuries without changing the fundamental nature of the sport.

"It's pretty hard to think like everybody's going to be suspended," Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "Somebody's going to say, 'Don't hit the head,' which most don't try to do. Then they'll say we aren't going to hit nobody. Then it wouldn't be hockey; it'd be golf."

Former all-star center Jeremy Roenick, who suffered nine concussions over his 20-year professional career, said players accept the possibility of injury when they step into the NHL.

"I think you have to continue to try to find some solution to limiting head shots, but you're never going to get rid of it completely," Roenick said. "You're never going to get rid of head injuries, you're never going to get rid of the physical aspect of the game. All the players play the game understanding the problems with it. There is a possibility of getting seriously hurt, and that's what happens."

Opinions differ on how the NHL can limit concussions. Player agents have begun advocating for stricter rules and a no-tolerance policy that would penalize players for any hit to the head, regardless of intent. Others suggest reducing equipment size and hardness or teaching the best techniques for staying out of harm's way.

After Crosby's concussion, which is believed to have been caused by a collision with the Capitals' David Steckel in the Winter Classic along with a hit by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman in the following game, agents began calling for any hit to the head regardless of intent to come with an automatic penalty, whether in game or suspension.

At the start of this season, the NHL added Rule 48, which bans a "lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted or the principal point of contact," and a handful of suspensions have been levied because of it. But several agents including Pat Brisson, who represents Crosby, maintain it is not enough.

"There needs to be an outright ban on any hits to the head period, regardless of if it's incidental contact," said Allan Walsh, whose clients include the Capitals' Jason Chimera. "When you take these hits and subject them to interpretation by hockey operations you're opening up a whole other can of worms. If a player gets his stick up and clips another player on the nose and blood is drawn, whether it was an accident or intentional, it's a four-minute penalty. . . . It's not about reducing physicality. It's about protecting the game's greatest assets now that more and more players are being subjected to concussions."

Ken Hitchcock, a former coach and current special consultant to the Columbus Blue Jackets, said he has questioned his own tactics and would like to see players made more aware of opponents' tendencies and physical personnel. Roenick and Walsh are among those who suggest an easy way to lessen injury without altering the game's makeup is to reduce the size of shoulder and elbow pads.

"You don't want to change their mentality or their ability to be strong and talented," Roenick said. "It can slow them down a bit, make them fearful of hurting themselves knowing that when they're going at 30 miles an hour when they hit there's going to be punishment to themselves."

Said Hitchcock: "Too many times I've found myself watching a game and yelling 'heads up' to guys on the ice. Our game is faster and more reckless than it's ever been; it's what makes it so exciting right now. With players moving so fast and arriving so fast [to hit], I wish there was a way to speed up the other player's defense of themselves. . . . We have to find a way to make players more aware of what's going on out on the ice."

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