Hits to the Head a Very Mindful Matter for Claude Julien

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Hits to the Head a Very Mindful Matter for Claude Julien Concussions — the ACL injury of the ice world — have been a problem for hockey players since the invention of the puck. But this season, the head injury has seemingly taken the league by storm. So much so, that it was the hot topic at the general managers' fall meetings this past week in Toronto.

A blindsided, open-ice check is one of the most thrilling, legal plays in all of hockey and fans — especially in this Boston market — yearn for the big hit every time a speedy forward threads his way through the neutral zone with his head down. But while the hits are and forever will be the "hit" of the sport, they are starting to show up on more than just highlight reels. That's because the players who suffer from a high, hard one often show up in ambulances, hospital beds and, sometimes, off the ice for good.

"I think we are all on the same page," Bruins head coach Claude Julien said about head shots in the sport. "Whether it’s players, management, coaches, nobody likes to see those head injuries. There is life after hockey, there’s a lot of things that go on. You look at all the stuff that’s been said about football players with concussions and what those players have to go through after their career."

The Ontario Hockey League — the most popular prequel for future NHLers — has been cracking down on hits to the head this season and many in the NHL want to see their league follow the OHL's zero-tolerance policy. For instance, any check to the head — no matter how severe — will result in a minor penalty. Severe hits and injury-causing checks to the head result in harsher penalties.

Dozens of NHL players can agree that this rule should be mandated. Just ask Chris Drury, the Rangers captain, who was blindsided by Curtis Glencross just last week. Drury sustained a concussion on the play and has yet to return to the ice, while Glencross was suspended for three games.

Similar hits in recent weeks have also turned many heads and damaged many brain cells. Matt D'Agostini of the Canadiens, Petr Sykora of the Wild, David Booth from the Panthers and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks have all had scares with vicious hits to the noggin. Need more proof? Just ask Patrice Bergeron his thoughts, but don't be surprised when the B's center is unable to remember much from his two major concussions.

Of course, hockey isn't a simple sport and a simple rule can't eliminate much, if anything. It's a game that sometimes appears to have more unwritten than written rules, a game where a bloody fight is just as commonplace as a slap shot. Limiting such an important aspect of the game — its physicality — isn't going to be easy, but Julien is all for attempting to enhance the safety of its athletes.

"We got to definitely try and minimize that," Julien added. "Having said that, there’s also the element that this is the fastest sport in the world. You are on skates and you are not running, you are skating which is even faster. And there’s contact involved, so to say that we can eliminate them at 100 percent, I think, would be a little too hopeful."

Other figures around the league aren't as keen on turning down the volume on checking. Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke can't see the NHL going the same route the OHL has traveled when it comes to policing head shots.

“We don’t want an automatic penalty for contact with the head,” Burke told The New York Times last week. “An otherwise legal check that includes contact with the head — that’s a penalty in some leagues. We don’t want that. It would take hitting out of the game completely.”

Even the most old-school hockey purist would agree that such a statement is easy for Burke to make, as he isn't getting blindsided in the press box on a nightly basis. Not yet, at least.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, another figure who is typically out of the line of fire, disagrees with Burke, explaining that this game is meant to be physical, and that players are starting to abuse that privilege. He feels that it's the NHL's duty to clean up the illegal hits and dirtiness that is putting its superstars in regular danger.

"GMs [and] the NHL are afraid of taking hitting out of hockey, but it's not ever going to take the hitting out of hockey," Miller, a member of the NHL's competition committee, told the Buffalo News. "It's going to take the stupid hits out of hockey.

"Hitting was always to separate the man from the puck. Now it's turned into something different," he added. "You're not suspending guys the right amount of time for these kind of dangerous plays."

These cerebral attacks extend far beyond the hulking on-ice hit men. General managers have been hiring tough customers for the sake of having muscle on their side (see: Shawn Thornton), while coaches are instructing their troops to maintain a consistently physical attack.

"We as coaches have a responsibility in that," Julien said. "You have a responsibility to educate your players. I don’t want to see my players go and blindside somebody just for the sake of getting a hit. To me it’s not part of the game."

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