There’s really no doubt that a person’s head should be treated with the utmost respect when playing any kind of sport. Your own head, yes, and, of course, your opponent’s. Deliberately or recklessly intending to injure an opponent’s head (or any other body part, for that matter) is something, I think, we can all agree, needs to be discouraged. But Hockey Canada’s new rules go beyond punishing reckless players and discouraging that kind of on-ice decision making. At the pro level, I think one of these new rules wouldn’t be at all appropriate. However, in a kids’ game, perhaps it’s necessary as we endeavour to keep our little ones as safe as possible, while they learn and enjoy the game that is every Canadian’s birthright. That rule: A two-minute penalty for accidentally contacting an opponent’s head.
A penalty for an intentional action that ends up having a player’s head contacted makes sense. A penalty for an unintentional action that results in the same thing, at fist blush, seems like punishing a kid for spilling a glass of water on someone the same as you would punish him or her for throwing a glass of water on someone. A consistent march of players to the penalty box for unintentionally knocking an opponent’s head will likely lead to a less-aggressive style of play in minor hockey. Let’s face it, if little Johnny or Jenny is forechecking and in reaching for the puck, accidentally strikes the defenceman in the helmet with their elbow while that defenceman is also reaching for the puck, and is sent to the box for two minutes — well, little Johnny or Jenny may decide that it’s not worth being so aggressive the next time. Certainly if it happens on a number of occasions, the kid’s not going to continue to play with as much aggressiveness. Over a period of time, all the little Johnnys and Jennys have their games shaped in this fashion, and all the other little Johnnys and Jennys out there get a little more room on the ice.
In our pro’s, that’s not the type of hockey we want to see. We like aggressiveness. That’s called hustle. We tend to tolerate errors of commission more than we tolerate errors of omission, in our hockey players. Penalizing pros in a way that Hockey Canada has decided to penalize kids, would make less sense. It might turn the NHL into the equivalent of a touch football league. There’s a very important distinction here. Goal number one in pro hockey is not the same as goal number one in kids’ hockey. In the NHL, it’s to entertain. To thrill. In minor hockey, it’s to keep kids as safe as possible. Fostering a less aggressive style of hockey for youngsters will provide them with a little bit safer atmosphere. Penalizing players for unintentionally putting an opponent’s health at risk is a good thing for 10 year olds. Teaches them, at an early age, that they are indeed responsible for the consequences of their actions, whether those results were intended or not. From that, respect for the dangerous possibilities will be instilled. That respect, once fortified, can form the backbone of a more aggressive game, as they get older and make the jump to competitive junior hockey and on into the pros.
That could lead to a happy development, a generation of players down the road. A return to something that many believe has been long lost in the NHL. Respect. The National Hockey League seems only partially dedicated to, or capable of, its restoration. Continuing to wait for a fix at the top levels of the game seems fruitless. Cultivation at a much lower level, if done reasonably and patiently, may actually lead to some bounty at the pro level, in the future.