NHL Rule Banning Hits To The Head Hasn’t Reduced Number Of Concussions


Sidney Crosby spent the last two seasons dealing with recurring concussion symptoms. (Credit: AP)

Before the 2010 season began, the National Hockey League instituted Rule 48 banning blindside hits to another player’s head. Before the 2011 season, it applied the rule to any hit to the head. The rule’s goal was simple: it was supposed to reduce the number of concussions NHL players suffered each season.

It hasn’t, according to a new study from the University of Toronto’s Dr. Michael Cusimano. In fact, the number of concussions in the NHL has increased since the rule went into effect, rising from 44 to 65 in the first year it was applied and from 65 to 85 the next year. But the number didn’t rise because NHL players weren’t following the new rule, because the majority of concussions came on hits that didn’t draw a penalty.

“In only 28% of the concussive events was there a penalty issued,” Cusimano told the Los Angeles Times. The most dangerous hits in the NHL are actually body checks, which caused 64.2 percent of the concussions, according to the study. Body checks are legal and, aside from goals, the most likely type of play to land a hockey player on the highlight reels. Among penalties, fighting most often causes concussions.

Cusimano told the Times that he thinks hockey could benefit from banning both fighting and body checking, as many junior leagues already do. “I don’t think there’s really a big advantage of checking in professional hockey, if you look at things like the all-star game,” he said. But those rule changes aren’t likely to gain popularity from fans and purists who enjoy the physical aspects of hockey and want hard hits to remain.

That’s the case in football, where fans and players have decried recent rule changes meant to make the game safer. A new NCAA rule banning hits that target a player’s head as well as hits that lead with the crown of the helmet sparked controversy this week when rules officials suggested that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s thunderous hit in this year’s Outback Bowl would be illegal under the new rule. Other officials disagreed, but the gray area speaks to the level of controversy that could be coming: Clowney’s hit was one of the most celebrated of the season, a play one columnist called “as pure a demonstration of the game’s truest nature as we’re likely to see.”

And therein lies the major problem facing both football and hockey: outright hits to the head are the easiest plays to ban. But if they aren’t the major problem, or if concussions and head injuries are still occurring even when those hits aren’t, making the game safer becomes much more difficult because it involves rules that fundamentally change the game in ways that players and fans won’t like. It’s also possible that in both sports the real danger is not concussions but the fact that routinely playing the game can lead to long-term brain trauma. Either way, this puts leagues and fans in quite the conundrum, since the aspects of the games fans enjoy most are also what makes them most dangerous. The short-term question facing both the NFL and NHL is how they can present a product that both protects players from brain injuries that last a lifetime and attracts fans to the games. The bigger question might be whether achieving that balance is possible at all.