Heading Into Danger: Why The EIHL Needs To Make The Right Call On Head Hits

Let’s play a game, shall we, Elite League fans? I’ll start, and see how you answer.

Sounds like fun. We’ve got nothing else to do this Tuesday. Go ahead.

OK. Imagine a hockey player. Imagine he’s in the middle of a game just like any other, when he gets a check that knocks him unconscious. A check that sees him stretchered off the ice.

Dangers of the game, right? Should have kept your head up, kid.

But this is a hit that he never saw coming. A hit that sees an opposition player make contact with his head.

But wait, the other guy couldn’t help it. He was bigger. It looked to us like he went to lay a clean hit-just caught the first guy in the head when he stood up. You can’t blame him for that, right? It was an accident.

Well, clearly the ref didn’t think so-he threw the checker out. Match penalty.

No harm done, then, right? The other guy got a match penalty plus a couple of games suspension. The league are going to review it.

What punishment should the guy get?

We’re fans of his team, and we think it was a clean hit. The guy’s…what, 6’4,, 6’5 and the kid he hit was 5’11/6′? Size difference is an issue here, he can’t be expected to be punished for being tall. It was an accident. No penalty.

We’re fans of the guy who got hit. Throw the book at the offender.

We’re everyone else in the league. A few games is fine. Maybe four.

OK. Let’s say three games. Maybe four.

Sounds about right.

Now imagine the guy hit steps back onto the ice fine after a brief concussion, and carries on playing. The checker serves his suspension, and that’s that.

Sure. All’s fair. The system works, right?

OK. Now imagine the same situation, except this time, imagine that one player knowingly hits another in a way that has been proven will cause the guy hit to start getting dizzy. He’ll suffer nausea for no reason. For the first few weeks after the injury, daylight is painful, so he’ll have to spend his time in a darkened “quiet room” with minimal stimulation.

Wow. That’s nasty. Vicious, even.

It gets worse. He’ll have balance problems. Time will slow down and speed up for him, or at least his perception of it will.

He’ll suffer acute depression as his brain tries to heal itself from the jarring it’s caused, but doesn’t. Any physical exercise will cause horrendous fatigue, blinding headaches & acute pain. When he tries to come back and play hockey again, doctors will tell him to stop because it’s seriously unsafe. Despite trying, it’ll probably end his career.

And on top of all that, he’ll suffer random memory loss. Sometimes short-term, sometimes long-term. His life will be forever blighted by that one moment where another hockey player collides with him. So, knowing that, what penalty would you give?

Jesus. If someone hit another player in that way, they should be banned for life, No question. I don’t care who they are or if they play on my team.

Right. That second hit? It was the same one as the first. A check to the head. So now what do you think, EIHL fans?


That fictional conversation discussed two hits. The first was a description of Sheffield Steeler Tom Sestito’s hit on Hull Stingrays’ Andrew Ward, with the responses based on the reaction of fans across Britain this week.

The hypothetical effects of the “magical” second hit are not imaginary at all. They’re the daily problems faced by Marc Savard of the NHL’s Boston Bruins as he still tries to recover from a hit to the head delivered on March 7th, 2010 by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke-a hit that was adjudged to have no intent to injure by league disciplinary officials. A hit for which Cooke served not a single game of suspension.

A hit that was claimed by Cooke’s club and fans to be “an accident”. Just like many Sheffield fans (and now the club in this article) are claiming was the case with Sestito’s.

They’re caused by PCS or post-concussion syndrome-an illness that can be caused by any violent contact to the head-deliberate or not. Like, say, the kind of contact that might happen accidentally if a 6’4 player hits a smaller player. Or the kind of contact that isn’t always intentional, but may happen when players go in for hard hits and mistime them.

The kind of contact that many Elite League fans (Sheffield this time round, Cardiff fans in the past over Brad Voth, to name but two) say is bound to happen occasionally and that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of taller guys to try and avoid. Because “it’s just hockey, right?”

Try to tell Marc Savard or any Bruins fan that his life has been blighted perhaps irreparably because of something that’s “just hockey”, and see what happens, Elite League fans. You’ll probably get a response of two words…the first one rhyming with “puck”.

This “sometimes head contact just happens-let the league deal with it” attitude is, to me, an attitude that needs to change, right now. British hockey fans need to get into the mindset that ANY contact with the head during a hockey game is bad. They need to stop breaking out the “size matters” argument because frankly, that’s sheer lunacy. These players are pro sportsmen. They know damn well how to minimise the risk of injury to opposition players if they want to. And they know damn well that if they’re a big guy checking a smaller guy, to land a clean hit, they have to adjust.

This season, the EIHL disciplinary committee has made a good start to the year, with fair and even-handed decisions so far.

However, this is their chance to take an early-season stand on head hits, just as has been done in the NHL already. It doesn’t matter who the player is. It doesn’t matter that the Sheffield spin machine are trying to claim that this hit was “an accident”. This ban will set a precedent for the future. If a “check to the head” call on the ice is overturned or downgraded, then it undermines the officials. Let them stand except in cases of CLEAR (as in crystal) misjudgement. If you’re not sure, but can’t show clear misjudgement…then don’t add any further games.

Hits to the head, whether accidental or not, are some of the most dangerous plays in hockey. In the past the EIHL has seen fit to deal with them as an “automatic” match penalty/three game suspension, but also allowed the loophole of appeal. This needs to change, at least in cases of checks to the head-before someone gets REALLY hurt.

I’m arguing for a zero-tolerance rule on head contact in the EIHL. If a check is adjudged to make contact with the head of an opposition player (even if it’s accidental or not called on the play), then it’s a one-game suspension. No appeal, no nothing.

If a player is thrown out of a game for a check to the head (as was Sestito) and the call is found to be correct upon video review, then, in my eyes, it should be a mandatory ten games. No ifs. No buts. No arguments.

Come back and do it again (and have it upheld)…you’re done for the season. See ya.

Sure, some may say it’s draconian. But this way, you know that suddenly EIHL players will become a lot more aware of how they’re checking their fellow professionals, and a lot more careful. Fans will realise that a) the EIHL disciplinary system is strong and b) that checking to the head is something awful, not an unfortunate accident.

Maybe, just maybe, this horrendous passing of responsibility from the checker to the checkee will die out amongst UK hockey fans, and we won’t get the case of a professional club legitimising the attitude by saying “it was an accident” in order to gain an advantage.

And, most important of all, hockey will become safer in the UK, and bring us closer to eradicating the heartstopping sight of an unconscious player being carried off the ice from UK rinks, and lower the chances that we’ll to have our own version of the heart-rending Savard affair in the EIHL.

But, for all this to even begin, the EIHL has to make a strong decision on the Sestito check. One that will send a message that it doesn’t matter who you are or what team you play for-head hits are way beyond the pale in UK hockey, and will be dealt with accordingly.

We can but hope.

4 thoughts on “Heading Into Danger: Why The EIHL Needs To Make The Right Call On Head Hits

  1. From what I have always been told and seen, the IIHF makes clear about checking is that the responsibility of the point of contact lies completely with the player delivering the check, regardless of size differences, ability, etc.

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