May 2, 2019 6:00 am

Rick Zamperin: Banning headshots to eliminate concussions in hockey isn’t the right answer

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman appears before the Commons Subcommittee on Sports-Related Concussions on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 1, 2019.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
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There aren’t too many things that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and I agree on.

He seems to think hockey can thrive in Arizona instead of Canadian cities like Hamilton and Quebec City, and seems to believe fans love him despite being booed lustily whenever he presents the Stanley Cup to the league champion each spring.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says ban on head contact ‘impossible to enforce’

But I wholeheartedly agree with at least one comment Bettman made Wednesday before a government of Canada parliamentary subcommittee on concussions in sports.

The committee is trying to come up with ways to eliminate concussions and invited Bettman and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly to Parliament Hill to share the league’s stance on the issue.

Bettman dismissed any notion of instituting a ban on head contact in the sport, claiming that it would not only be impossible to enforce but also lead to the extinction of the bodycheck.

I agree. Professional hockey is an extremely fast and physical sport — it’s one of the reasons we love it — and banning all contact to the head, incidental or not, would completely change the game.

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Knowing headshots were off-limits, players wouldn’t risk bodychecking an opponent for fear of accidentally hitting that player in the noggin. And what would a ban mean, anyway? Would an offending player get a penalty? That happens — more often than not — in today’s NHL already. Or would a headshot trigger an automatic suspension? The league has handed out its fair share of those, too.

The NHL employs concussion spotters and has adopted a concussion protocol and a dark room in each arena, so at least some progress has been made on that front.

Not surprisingly, though, Bettman did question the link between multiple concussions in hockey and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition associated with repeated hits to the head.

On this, we disagree.

The National Hockey League settled a lawsuit by more than 300 former players out of court last November and agreed to disperse $19 million to the group, although some players refused to take the money and have launched new legal action. As part of the settlement, the NHL did not accept any responsibility for CTE-related head injuries.

It’s quite obvious that if the league publicly admitted to a link between on-ice headshots and CTE there would be thousands of players and their lawyers lined up to get their slice of the pie. Parents would pull their children out of the sport and hockey would never be the same.

Incidental or accidental headshots in the NHL are never going to go away. It’s just the nature of the sport. However, the league and its players should understand that they must do everything in their power to prevent targeted hits to the head from happening.

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I haven’t even discussed fighting in hockey, which is a whole other can of worms. But on-ice fisticuffs have dramatically declined over the last number of years as more and more teams rely on skill and puck possession as opposed to punching ability and pugilism. According to hockeyfights.com, there were 238 fighting majors in the NHL during the 29018-19 season compared to 469 punch-ups five years ago and 734 a decade ago.

The NHL has made some strides on the player safety front, but banning headshots, and with it bodychecks, would be too radical of a change.

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