NHL Cracks Down On Head Checking

Michele Norris talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about the NHL's crackdown on head checking on the ice.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: The National Hockey League is serious. You check someone in the head, you get a suspension. That's the message the league is sending as it gets ready to start the season next week. As of today, eight players have already been suspended for head checks during the preseason. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays, to talk about all this. Hello, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, explain what's happening in the NHL. It seems like this is part of what's going on in all of pro sports right now.

FATSIS: Yeah, absolutely. There's this heightened attention in this widening toll of concussions that's pushing sports to protect players more. Pittsburgh Penguin star Sidney Crosby is still not playing in the NHL nine months after he suffered two concussions in five days. Now, there was a key rule change in this off-season. It makes it illegal for the head to be targeted and the principal point of contact regardless of the angle that one player hits another. In the past, it was only if a guy got hit from the side or the back.

Now, the NHL has a new vice president for player safety, Brendan Shanahan. And he does seem determined to impose stiffer and more consistent punishments.

NORRIS: It seems like the NHL is not just trying to say we're serious about the suspensions, but they're also trying to explain the rationale behind them.

FATSIS: Yeah. They're posting videos on nhl.com. And let's play one. Here's Shanahan explaining a suspension that he handed down today of Brendan Smith of the Detroit Red Wings, who was booted for the rest of the preseason and five regular season games without pay for an illegal hit to the head of Ben Smith of the Chicago Blackhawks.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

BRENDAN SHANAHAN: As the video shows, although the Chicago player Ben Smith slightly changes his path, the positioning of his head does not significantly change, so the onus remains upon Detroit's Brendan Smith to deliver a full body check. Instead, Brendan Smith misses and recklessly targets his opponent's head.

FATSIS: This is definitely unusual for a pro league, and it is instructive for fans. And as long as the NHL remains consistent in how it's enforcing these rules, maybe it's going to serve as a deterrent and make the game less dangerous. And I think that this change could have an impact on players because it's coming from Brendan Shanahan. He played 20 seasons in the NHL. He just retired in 2009, scored more than 600 goals and had more than 2,000 penalty minutes.

NORRIS: So it's more than just a suit delivering this message.

FATSIS: Correct.

NORRIS: In this new climate of heightened sensitivity to illegal hits and head injuries, has fighting in the NHL come up?

FATSIS: Yeah, it has. Just yesterday, Brendan Shanahan told an interviewer for Canada's CBC that there's no way we would ever deny that it's not something we're looking at closely. Fighting has always been the third rail of the NHL. It has its defenders. I've been one of them in the past. We've argued that the fighting deters cheap shots to talented players and other more serious injuries. But it's also become a farce sometimes: staged fights by proxy enforcers. And the NHL has cleaned up some of that, but there were no rules changes this year regarding fighting.

NORRIS: Is this a bit like talking about football without tackling, though? I mean, fans come to these games expecting to see rough play on the ice. How can you eliminate it?

FATSIS: You know, hard-core fans do still view it as a central part of the game, but the climate is changing. Three current NHL players - all of whom were in the league, thanks largely to their willingness to use their fists - died this summer: two from reported suicides, one from what was determined to be an accidental overdose from alcohol and a painkiller. Separately, researchers have found signs of degenerative brain disease in two other NHL brawlers, one of whom, Bob Probert, died at just 45 year old. Sports adapt. I think banning fighting or taking it out of the daily life of the game in the NHL is inevitable.

NORRIS: Stefan, good to talk to you. Thank you so much. Have a good weekend.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sports podcast called "Hang Up and Listen."

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