Cut back on head cases

Hits to the head are a point of emphasis for NHL officials this season. But is the league backing the message?

Updated: October 16, 2003, 3:33 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

Head injuries have increased to epidemic proportion around the NHL in recent years. You know the names. Eric Lindros. Adam Deadmarsh. Kenny Jonsson. The list seems to go on and on. Some guys make it back to active duty, while others like Pat LaFontaine, Mike Richter and Jeff Beukeboom aren't so lucky. In some cases, the injuries are sustained in the normal course of the game. Too many, unfortunately, are the result of a reckless play.

During the preseason, the league office sent an annual memo to its 30 member clubs to remind them that blows to the head wouldn't be tolerated. While the memo implied there would be stiffer suspensions, NHL vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said the league will continue to closely monitor games for reckless blows to the head, but doesn't plan any new tact in dealing with the offenders.

Capitals right winger Mike Grier earned the first suspension of the season, having been slapped with a one-game sentence for throwing an elbow to the head of Leafs center Robert Reichel.

Brad Stuart
Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart missed 21 games last season after being hit in the head by Jody Shelley.
While league officials have the best intentions, it is time to really put the hammer down on players who show no respect for the game or their opponents. The league had a great opportunity to send a message about hits to the head after an ugly incident that occurred in a game between Columbus and San Jose on Feb. 21. On that night, Blue Jackets goon Jody Shelley repeatedly sucker punched Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart in the head during an altercation in the third period of a 6-0 Sharks' blowout win. As a result of the incident, Stuart missed the final 21 games of the season. Shelley, meanwhile, got off with a two-game slap on the wrist.

In that case, the league would have better to levy an indefinite suspension to Shelley. That way, he would be forced to miss as much time as his victim. That kind of message could dent even the thickest of skulls. And, maybe, save a few others.

Around the Hrink

  • Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, a personal favorite because of his insatiable love for the game and his dry wit, could be the first coach to be canned if his club doesn't turn things around. The Canes, who suffered through a miserable 2002-03 season after a surprising trip to the Cup final in '02, have stumbled out to a 0-2-1 start. They've scored just four goals in the three games. To make matters worse, the club drew just 10,223 to its 2-2 tie with the Panthers on Monday. It was the Canes' smallest home crowd in two years. In the past, Maurice, 36, has managed to avoid the ax. He has survived to be the longest tenured coach in the league. But, when the fans stop showing up, management usually reacts. The Canes open a four-game road trip against the Rangers on Saturday.

  • Maybe you really can't teach an old dog a new trick. Veteran pivots Steve Yzerman and Ron Francis both started the season on the wing, but both future Hall of Famers have requested a move back to center ice after the first week. In Detroit, Yzerman's decision will force sophomore Henrik Zetterberg back to the left wing on a line with center Pavel Datsyuk and right winger Brett Hull. In Carolina, rookie Erik Staal will be moved back to third and fourth-line duty to accommodate Francis.

  • The contract negotiations between the Wild and star right winger Marian Gaborik have taken an interesting turn in recent days. On Saturday, feeling a little pressure, GM Doug Risebrough decided to go public with the status of the talks, outlining the offers on both sides of the table. Gaborik's agent, Allan Walsh, felt betrayed by Risebrough. He claims the two sides had an agreement to keep the negotiations out of the media. Then, on Monday, Gaborik requested that Walsh's partner, David Schatia, get actively involved in the negotiations. Fans shouldn't take much from Gaborik's decision to involve Schatia. Often times during tense negotiations, a partner will step in to change the tenor of the talks. Super agents Don Meehan and Pat Morris have perfected this negotiating technique over their many years at the bargaining table.

  • Vancouver Canucks right winger Todd Bertuzzi, a Meehan client, is working on a three-year contract extension with club management. Owner John McCaw must approve any new deal. If he isn't comfortable with the numbers, the sides will table the talks until the offseason. Under GM Brian Burke, the Canucks have done an excellent job of identifying their core players and signing them, as they did with Markus Naslund and Ed Jovanovski. The club also benefited by signing Bertuzzi to a three-year deal before his breakout 2001-02 season. He'll make $3.7 million this year -- a bargain for a player of his ability.

  • Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett sent an early-season message to star players Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov and Marty Turco during the third period of their 4-3 loss to the Sabres on Monday. Tippett benched the trio after falling behind 4-1 in the first 40 minutes. To their credit, none of the players argued with Tippett's decision. Without their trio grande, the Stars nearly tied the game in the final minutes.

  • Ottawa Senators center Jody Hull decided to accept a position as a player/assistant coach with the club's AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., under former NHL coach John Paddock. Hull's interest in coaching is fitting. The role-playing journeyman was a long-time favorite of Roger Neilson, who helped facilitate Hull's arrival in Ottawa a few seasons ago. A first-round pick of the Whalers in 1987, Hull played for Neilson in New York (Rangers), Florida, Philadelphia and Ottawa.

    Power-play time with ...

    Colin Campbell, NHL vice president of hockey operations.

    Q: What is the one thing you are most proud of during your tenure?
    A:
    I don't think there's one thing or area that I've changed or affected. Really, I've tried to build on the work of Brian O'Neill and Brian Burke, who were in this job before me. I do think that my experience as a player, assistant coach and coach in the league has helped bring a flavor of the dressing room to the front office of the league. I think that's been a positive.

    Q: Is there one area of the game that still needs work?
    A:
    The league is so big and there is always debate. It's that way in all sports. There are a lot of valid ways to look at the issues that concern the game on the ice. While I like debate, I do wish we had more one-person committees. That's not to say I have all the answers -- I wish I did -- but we could get things done in a timely manner. Right now, I think the game is in pretty good shape. A lot better shape than some people seem to think. Some will say they long for the 70s and 80s, but I played during those years. I think our game is much better today.

    Q: You issued a preseason memo to the league's GMs and players regarding hits to the head. Was there one particular incident that prompted it?
    A:
    The memo we sent was a reminder to the clubs that we will be paying particular attention when it comes to blows to the head. It really wasn't a new directive. We've been trying to pay close attention to this area for several years. It's difficult because we don't want to take the hitting out of the game, but we do want to protect our players. Clearly, we have to be extremely careful when it comes to hits to the head. We have to try to determine the intent, which can be tough. The stick infractions are particularly hard to tolerate.

    Q: You're on the front lines of a very competitive league. You sometimes get irate calls from coaches and GMs while their games are still in progress. How do you deal with that kind of day-to-day pressure?
    A:
    Well, sometimes I deal with it calmly and other times I snap. Gary [Bettman] gives me that leeway if I feel that they've gone too far in their complaints. I just try to remind them that we can't change things, but we will try to correct things in the future. We're constantly doing things to improve the game and decrease the odds of a problem. We have Dan Craig and his group constantly monitoring the ice conditions. We have the injury panel working on ways to improve playing conditions. We've tried to eliminate the diving by instituting the diving list. Since January, we've been able to communicate -- from the league war room in Toronto -- directly with the video replay booths around the league. So, I try to impress upon everybody that we're all doing our best to get things right.

    Q: This year the league has made more changes to its officiating staff. In fact, longtime ref Mark Faucette was released. What are the criteria for such decisions with the officials?
    A:
    There are lots of criteria when it comes to the officials. Andy VanHellemond and his staff are constantly speaking with the officials throughout the season. At the end of the year, they will evaluate the work of every single official. At that point, they'll discuss their evaluations with my staff. Then, we'll bring our recommendations to Gary, (NHL chief legal officer) Bill Daly and (NHL legal counsel) David Zimmerman for further discussion. It is a very difficult part of the job. If we decide to release an official, it's not like they can just go to work for another team.

    Advance scouting

    The star-studded Colorado Avalanche are going to be an offensive nightmare for their opponents this season. Their top two lines of Paul Kariya-Joe Sakic-Teemu Selanne and Alex Tanguay-Peter Forsberg-Milan Hejduk are constantly on the attack and move the puck like few lines in the league. Throw in the fact their defensemen constantly are looking to hit them with long-distance breakout passes, and opponents' defensemen are foreced to stay wide-awake at all times. It also makes it tough for them to be aggressive on the pinch at their offensive blue line.

    On Sunday, the Blues managed to come out of Denver with a 2-1 victory in a game that had a playoff feel. The Blues opted for a physical approach. Defenseman Chris Pronger looked like his old self, hammering anyone in a dark sweater. Up front, power forward Keith Tkachuk and little pest Mike Danton set the tone with some heavy hitting.

    The Blues also benefited from the superb play of goalie Chris Osgood, who was sharp in turning back 39 of 40 shots. In any NHL game, you can't afford a bad performance from your stopper. But against the Avs, you'll be embarrassed if your goalie doesn't bring his A game.

    This week, the Wild (Thursday) and Oilers (Saturday) will challenge the offensive circus of the Avalanche. How do they match up?

    The Wild have a system to frustrate the Avs, and, on home ice, coach Jacques Lemaire will get the matchups he wants. D-men Willie Mitchell, Brad Bombardir and Brad Brown have the size to make life uncomfortable for the Avs forwards. In goal, Dwayne Roloson or Manny Fernandez is capable of shutting the door. This game could come down to which team gets the first goal. The Wild play well with a lead, but without sniper Marian Gaborik it will be difficult to come from behind against Colorado.

    The Oilers will be hard pressed to keep it close. Without center Mike Comrie, who remains at odds with management over a new contract, the Oilers' offense has struggled, suffering back-to-back shutouts during the past week for the first time since 1991. Containing the Avalanche will be the toughest challenge of the season for the Oilers defense. The Oilers top four D-men -- Eric Brewer, Steve Staios, Jason Smith and Cory Cross -- will draw the bulk of the duty. Coach Craig MacTavish will concentrate on getting favorable matchups to avoid having his No. 5 and 6 defenders (Marc-Andre Bergeron and Scott Ferguson) on the ice against the Avs' top six forwards. They'll need help up front from oversized forwards like Ryan Smyth, Brad Isbister and Georges Laraque in maintaining a physical presence in the Avs' zone. In the end, goalie Tommy Salo will have to be at the top of his game for the Oilers to have any chance of stealing a point.

    Bargain or bust?

    Bust: Darius Kasparaitis, D, Rangers.

    Though he's one of the most competitive players in the league, Kasparaitis just isn't worth the $4.2M he'll receive this season. Or, for that matter, the $4.1M he earned last season.

    He can be effective when he plays a conservative game. But, even then, the 5-11, 212-pound Kasparaitis has a hard time dealing with quick or oversized forwards below the dots in his own end. When he strays from the conservative game, he starts running out of position to make a big open-ice hit in the neutral zone. While those hits look good on the highlight reels, they usually result in odd-man rushes against his team.

    Kasparaitis does have a good agent, though. Mark Gandler negotiated an excellent free agent deal for his client. Kasparaitis is schedule to make another $17.2M (after this season) on a contract that doesn't expire until 2008.

    Mailbag

    Why did you pick the Red Wings over the Avalanche in the West? -Joseph Essella, Tampa, FL.

    I guess I'm old school. I still think a good defense can stop a good offense. The Wings, with the additions of Derian Hatcher and Mathieu Schneider (for a full season) and the return of Jiri Fischer, have one of the best six-man units I've ever seen on one team. In the playoffs, when the games get nasty and low scoring, I think the Wings will have the edge. But check back with me in April. We know both teams -- as well as the Stars, Blues and Canucks -- will probably make a few changes between now and the end of the regular season.

    E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com.

    E.J. Hradek

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
    E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.