Will this call set the standard?

Referees make the right decision under tricky circumstances

25.05.2009
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What will be the future impact of Niklas Kronwall's Stanley Cup hit on Martin Havlat? Photo: Getty Images / Jim Prisching

By now any hockey fan or Stanley Cup enthusiast has seen the hit many times. Play is in the Chicago end of the ice. The puck comes along the boards, and the Hawks’ Czech forward Martin Havlat gets his stick on it briefly. He fails to control it as it slides between his skates. Just as he looks down to try to regain possession, Detroit’s Swedish defenceman Niklas Kronwall pinches in and drills him in the head.

Kronwall uses his shoulder to deliver the violent hit. He doesn’t leave his feet until the follow-through. Neither referee signals a penalty immediately, but when Havlat lies motionless on the ice and a scrum develops, Kronwall is given a five-minute major for interference plus a game misconduct. An interference major? This is surely a first in NHL history.

Click here for a video of the hit from TSN.ca

In the aftermath, those in the Detroit camp called the hit devastating but clean while Chicagoans labeled it a vicious attack that deserves further punishment.

Before passing judgment, let’s consider two other scenarios to help us understand the hit more clearly.

First scenario. Let’s transpose this exact play to the concurrent Pittsburgh-Carolina series. A Carolina defenceman flings the puck along the boards and Eric Staal gets a stick on the puck before losing control. Coming in on the play is Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal. Do you think for one millisecond that Jordan would drill his brother in the head, rendering him unconscious?

Second test. Let’s say Pittsburgh is playing Anaheim in the playoffs. Maxime Talbot of the Penguins fires the puck along the boards and Sidney Crosby gets his stick on the puck. Coming in on the play is Ducks tough guy George Parros who sees a vulnerable Crosby. Parros puts his shoulder into number 87 with Kronwallian force, rendering Sid the Kid unconscious. Would anybody be saying this was a legal hit? Or, would we merely be discussing the length of Parros’s suspension?

Something else to consider. Havlat loses the puck inside his blueline and Kronwall, a defenceman, is right there to make a play of some sort. Why doesn’t Kronwall simply swoop in and collect the puck — Havlat doesn’t know where it is — and drive to the net to create a scoring chance?

In the press conference following the game, Detroit’s coach Mike Babcock defended his blueliner, saying that while the hit resulted in an unfortunate injury, "that’s hockey."

Babcock coached the Wings to Cup victory last year. He has significant international experience and is perhaps the leading candidate to coach Canada at Vancouver 2010. He is a man to be respected and admired. So, when he says, "that’s hockey," he must be more right than wrong.

The referees begged to differ, but they were in a quandary. They saw an unconscious player on the ice. They knew the perp. But what was the call?

Kronwall kept his elbows down and skates on the ice. He didn’t charge at Havlat or crush him from behind into the boards. But they knew they had to do something and opted to call a major for interference, giving the interpretation that Havlat didn’t touch the puck prior to the thumping.

It was an odd call, but the right call because in the end the refs acknowledged this was a deliberate hit to the head. Of that there is absolutely no doubt. But the NHL has no formal rule banishing a player simply for hitting a player in the head as does the IIHF in international hockey.

Yet maybe the call the other night will signal a change, a change to allow refs to make the exact same call for every hit to the head, and for the NHL rules committee to put into place a formal rule banning hits to the head?

Was this a defining call in the history of the NHL? A call that will set a new standard of dealing with head shots?

Kronwall’s hit was neither legal nor illegal — it was a hit to the head. Hits to the head are dealt with by the IIHF using one criterion only — the area of the body to which a hit or blow is delivered.

In applying this rule to the game, the IIHF doesn’t care if a hit is in open ice or along the boards, whether the recipient has the puck or doesn’t have the puck, has his head down or not. The IIHF doesn’t care if the aggressor uses his shoulder or elbow or big toe to deliver a check, doesn’t care if he leaps at his opponent or hits him with no speed from close range. If a player receives a hit to the head, the opponent receives a major penalty, game misconduct, and further suspension. End of story.

Why is there no leeway with head shots in the IIHF rule book? Why aren’t circumstances of game situation taken into account?

Because it’s the head.

The head — for those maybe a tad too slow to use it in this debate — is the key to life. You can live with a sore leg or a broken arm. Hell, you can even get a pacemaker to replace your heart if you are really sick. But no person who has yet walked this Earth has been able to live and function normally without a brain.

In making the call the referees acknowledged as much. In its silence in the days that followed, the NHL acknowledged the same. And if there were any doubt, a small but telling moment late in the first period of game four on Sunday afternoon drove the point home further.

With play in the Detroit end, Chicago’s Samuel Pahlsson elbowed Detroit’s Valtteri Filppula in the head trying to establish position in front of the goal. Filppula fell to the ice, dazed and groggy, and Pahlsson went off for two minutes. Another head shot — albeit of lesser viciousness — another penalty.

If the NHL is moving toward stricter enforcement of head shots, the game will be the better for it. And we know from the many rule changes over the years that NHLers can adapt and adjust perhaps more than any other athletes.

If head shots are outlawed, the players will stop delivering them. Last year, Kurtis Foster of the Minnesota Wild had his leg broken badly chasing down an iced puck, and over the summer the league put in place a rule barring contact in a race for the puck on icing calls. This year — no injuries.

Kronwall’s hit was a head shot, a seemingly deliberate attempt to injure a vulnerable opponent. This is a play that doesn’t belong in any game in any league at any level. International hockey has known it for a while, and maybe now the NHL is announcing it knows it as well. There is, quite simply, no such thing as a clean hit to the head.

Understanding that is a no-brainer.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

Podnieks is the IIHF.com’s Toronto-based North American correspondent. He is the author of some 50 hockey books and has covered all World Championships and Olympics since 2002. 

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