Adding Intent to Injury: A Hockey Headshot Story

Ryan Fulford
January 9, 2013

As it usually does at the World Junior Hockey Championship, controversy once again reared its ugly head.

There was no shortage of controversial moments, from suspect officiating (see Ty Rattie’s bizarre goal) to questionable suspensions, but no incident sparked more debate than Anthony Camara’s devastating hit on Slovakia’s Patrik Luza.

IIHF officiating rarely draws rave reviews, especially from those used to the North American style of officiating seen in the CHL, AHL, and NHL. Thus, while the usual questions surrounded the penalties and suspensions doled out, Camara’s hit reignited a much bigger debate in the hockey world–the headshot debate.

More importantly, it placed the spotlight on the manner in which headshot rules are enforced.

There is no doubt that blatant headshots need to be eliminated from the game of hockey. Hits of that nature (see Cooke, Matt for a perfect example) add nothing to the game. Furthermore, it can be argued that their sole purpose is to inflict injury upon an opponent, rather than separate them from the puck, which is the main intention of a body check.

The issue with Camara steamrolling Luza for many was that he received a five-minute major for charging, as well as a game misconduct effectively ending his night as he was ejected from the game. Camera received no supplemental discipline, but his hit brings to light the inconsistencies that exist, and often occur, when a big hit resulting in injury is made.

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Camara was not issued a penalty on the play originally. However, once the fact that Luza was injured became apparent, the officials congregated before electing to issue a major penalty and game misconduct.

The actions of the officials in this instance are a perfect example of the inconsistencies surrounding plays in which contact is made with a player’s head.

Assessing a penalty (or a suspension for that matter) only after it becomes apparent that a player is injured is an exercise in futility.

To be clear, in international hockey a charging penalty is a five-minute major which carries a game misconduct. So the officials’ call meant Camara would be ejected from the game. Whether or not it was charging is up for debate, but that’s neither here nor there.

The issue is ascribing penalties and suspensions once it becomes clear a player is injured on the play.

And the worst offender when it comes to assessing penalties and supplemental discipline for headshots is the NHL.

In fact, part of the reason there are so many inconsistencies with regards to how penalties and suspensions are distributed in the NHL is due to the pressure to eliminate headshots, despite the amount of discretion given to referees in their very own rulebook.

Unlike the IIHF, a charging penalty can be a minor or a major penalty with a game misconduct assessed should a player receive a face or head injury as a result of the infraction. By that logic the penalty assessed to Camara would have been a minor or major and a game misconduct in the NHL as well, if you believe he met the criteria for charging (hint: he didn’t).

But hold on. The NHL rules regarding headshots also place a degree of responsibility on the player who receives the hit, as well as dictating that not all contact to the head results in a penalty.

Should a player put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit, the referees must hand out penalties based on their discretion. Similarly, if contact with the head is unavoidable made on an otherwise clean body check, it becomes incidental contact and a penalty does not need to be assessed.

Camara’s hit, by NHL standards, was legal and should not have resulted in a penalty. However, because of the impact of the hit and the fact that Luza was injured on the play, some referees would feel obligated to call a penalty. This is a result of discretion being trumped by the onus the league has place on itself to eliminate dirty headshots in the midst of “concussion epidemic.”

In the case of Camara’s hit, the only reason Luza’s head was a point of contact was because he was looking at the puck. Thus, with his head pointing downwards, it extended out beyond his body making it the first part of contact with Camara’s shoulder.

It’s understandable that players need to be protected, as injuries can have widespread ramifications and affect various parts of their livelihood over the course of their lifetime. However, penalties should not be called simply because a player is injured on a play, especially if the player hitting him is within the rules.

A penalty should be assessed by discretion of the referee based on “intent”, not end result. Determining “intent” is a slippery slope, however. But should a player be injured on a play because he has his head down or chooses to reach for a puck at the last second putting himself in a vulnerable, defenseless position on his own accord, a penalty should not be assessed. It’s always unfortunate when a player is injured, but unless it’s a result of malicious intent, it’s not penalty or suspensions worthy simply because an injury occurs.

Intent is the most difficult thing to assess though. Only the player committing the act knows the true intent of his actions, but as an objective third party there are clues as to whether or not an act is malicious, such as a player’s reputation.

Unfortunately, chief NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has been inconsistent when it comes to handing out suspensions, which is why headshots haven’t seen much of a decrease yet.

Assessing a 25-game suspension to multiple offender Raffi Torres for his hit on Marian Hossa is a start, but one wonders if Hossa wasn’t injured on the play whether or not a suspension would have be levied at all.

After all, this back-alley, barroom brawl move by Shea Weber received no supplemental discipline. If driving a player’s head into the glass with one’s hand isn’t malicious intent, what is? Odds are a suspension would have been handed down if Zetterberg suffered an injury on the play.

As such, the league moves along at a snail’s pace when it comes to curbing headshots because of its insistence on assessing penalties and suspensions after determination of an injury is made.

Injuries should not play a factor in whether a penalty is assessed or a suspension is handed down. The sole factor that should be used in determining whether a play is worthy of penalty, or more, is intent. Although it is a slippery slope, until the NHL grows the necessary cojones to take a stance on making a tough decision based on something they will never truly know (the player’s intent) even if they talk to the offender about the play, hits like this Michael Richards on David Booth one will still occur.

To summarize; Camara’s hit was clean because Luza’s head was down and made incidental contact with Camara’s shoulder on an otherwise legal check. Richards’ was not. He hit a defenseless player, and the initial point of contact was Booth’s head even though Richards had every opportunity to hit him shoulder-to-shoulder.

Proving intent is never simple. But for the supposedly “bright” minds governing the game, it’s nothing they shouldn’t be able to figure out. And if they can’t, the commotion will continue.

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The Author:

Ryan Fulford