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The NHL taught Tom Wilson to hit players in the head without consequences

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It’s not a case of Player Safety dropping the ball; the system is working as intended.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Player Safety, the Orwellian-named department of the NHL that exists to administer supplementary discipline, is likely not going to suspend Tom Wilson today. And when everyone is angry or cynical or just wants to get their hot take out on the internet after that non-suspension happens (again) the target of all the ire will be George Parros. Everyone knows he’s just a goon, and has no business running Player Safety, right?

But this isn’t a failure to act on dispensing discipline. This is the rules and processes of the NHL working as intended. They taught Tom Wilson how to deliver life-altering, permanently damaging hits to other players without getting so much as a minor penalty. They made an effort to do that, and they got a fully foreseeable result in the person of Tom Wilson, who has proven himself capable of finding the exact line the NHL told him not to cross. His skate is not in the air and he’s not offside on this. He’s following the rules.

Let’s begin with the rule.

Back in 2013, the rule was adjusted. Adjusted is a critical distinction from changed. As we saw a few weeks ago with the goaltender interference rule, changing a rule requires a vote of the Board of Governors and a vote of the NHL Players Association before it can be passed.

Rule 48.1 (Illegal Check to the Head) used to read as follows: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.” Personally, I found the “targeting” issue difficult to determine at times. NHL speed didn’t always make it easy, especially if there weren’t enough camera angles with a proper view.

The competition committee suggested finding different wording. The league and NHL Players’ Association both agreed, spending the summer finding something acceptable to everyone.

This is not considered an official rule change, which involves a lengthier process. Instead, the language was altered for greater clarity. Now Rule 48.1 declares an illegal check to the head as “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable.”

You’re going to ask the obvious follow-up. How do you determine if the hit is avoidable? There are three circumstances to be considered:

First, whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent’s body and the head was not “picked” as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.

Second, whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.

Third, whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.

Now, years later, we have the explanation above repeated in a recent video from the NHL that included Tom Wilson’s hit before this most recent hit that got everyone upset.

The video explainer that came out a few days before that one, that was prompted in part by Tom Wilson’s hit before the hit before the hit last night, contained this statement:

“The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. “Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

That video sought to educate the fans, and likely a few GMs, about the actual content of the head-hitting rule. It centered around the common misconception about “initial point of contact” and “main point of contact”.

Gary Bettman was quoted at the time of that first video as follows:

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice-president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

“Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. “I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

And now here we, with Tom Wilson, again talking about what seems obvious: Zach Aston-Reese has a broken jaw and a concussion, and he requires surgery, which is an outcome no one wants to have happen in a hockey play. Tom Wilson was not penalized on the play at all.

I now turn to Bob McKenzie, who has been thinking and talking about this issue for longer than I’ve been watching hockey. On a radio interview today he said the following:

There’s no easy way to put this, but according to the current set on NHL rules, you can hit and put your shoulder into a guy’s head and cause severe damage ... It’s conceivable that that kind of damage can be done by a shoulder to the head, but if there is full body on body contact, and there are no other rules broken ... there really is no penalty for hitting someone in the head.

Emphasis mine.

Back in 2015, Player Safety had some meetings with various repeat hitters — Zac Rinaldo, your hero John Scott, Steve Downie — and they requested a meeting with Tom Wilson. Wilson has been suspended a host of times, and avoided suspension often as well. The process of his interviews and meetings with Player Safety has had one result, a fully-predictable result: They’ve taught him how to get away with head hits.

It’s not a bad thing that the league clarifies its rules with players and discusses their behaviour in general and specific terms. But they made hits to the head a game of inches and they’ve handed Tom Wilson their ruler. That he’s smart enough to use it is not his fault.

The outcome of the most recent hit should be (according to the rules and by my read of that hit) that nothing happens. Now, the NHL is also showbiz as well as sport, and they have in the past responded to public pressure with suspensions that seemed not in keeping with previous decisions.

They might decide that Wilson should get some special treatment.

I think that’s a terrible way to run a hockey league. The hit that happens in a game no one watched on a Monday night in January deserves the same attention as a Penguins - Capitals playoff game marred by a horrible injury.

As much as fans want to imagine that Gary Bettman is the czar over all hockey and that he runs an authoritarian regime so they have an easy figure head to be opposed to, the reality is that the NHL is run by 31 teams. And as of now, a majority of the 31 teams don’t want a “No head hits, no excuses” rule change.

Ken Dryden uses the literary device of speaking directly to Bettman as a figurehead in the article linked above. He outlines all his reasons for why he thinks the rules should be changed and he coined the slogan that he is using in what is very much a public campaign to change minds. I think he knows how many minds there are to be changed.

No hits to the head — no excuses.

It’s an utterly, totally do-able answer that players and coaches will adapt to almost instantly. And the commissioner needn’t fear that making this decision would throw under the bus all those loyal to the old game — some fans, some media, some in the NHL offices. Listen to their voices even now. When there’s a crushing hit, more often than not they don’t explain it away with the debate-ending phrase, “It’s a hockey play.” They describe it as what it is, “a head hit.” They love the old game, and they love the skill and speed of the new game.

When language starts to change, the mind is already changing, and the story starts to change. And then it actually changes. Ahead can be the best of times for the game, for the players, for the league and for Gary Bettman himself.

But let’s be honest here about two things. Enacting the “No Excuses” rule would create a situation where there are fully legal plays where any head contact was totally unavoidable, totally unintentional and wholly accidental, and the player would be punished for it. That’s the price we would all pay.

What we’d get for that price is not a total absence of head hits and terrible consequences to the player hit. We’d get fewer of them. That’s all we’ll ever get. To get fewer, to make the probability higher that Zach Aston-Reese would play every playoff game even if Tom Wilson is on the other team, we will punish the innocent along with the guilty.

Know that going in. Be honest about it. And then tell all the general managers in hockey, the NHLPA and Gary Bettman that at the next Board of Governors meeting you want the rule changed to: No head hits, no excuses.

It’s time the NHL took the ruler away from Tom Wilson.