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Head shots and brain pots: what does it take to stop the play?

Thrashers Goalie Ondrej Pavelec went old school and stopped a shot without his mask.

Any goalie worth his salt probably has a more than a few stories about getting hit in the head by the puck, or better yet the evening of scores with the proverbial head-hunting psycho (yes, there’s one in every garage league) who tries to bean the goalie on purpose.  Thankfully, while there aren’t many of these latter types (hopefully most of them will have been hung up by their jockstraps on the dressing room coat hooks for a king-size wedgie), it goes without saying that getting hit in the head is part of the game.  After that, however, the only rule about head injury is that there are no rules.  While trolling around on any of the umpteen goalie specialty sites and blogs reveals no shortage of opinions, there is precious little hard information about exactly why concussions happen to some and not to others and whether one brand of mask can verifiably protect the head better than another.  Some goalies have never been hurt.  Some are still wearing their antique Jofa helmet and cage a la Arturs Irbe.  Other goalies aren’t goalies anymore due to head trauma.  Go figure.

One interesting observation I made during this week’s World Junior Final (in between much hand-wringing, sweating and eventual sobbing as the home team lost) was that in international hockey there is apparently a rule whereby the referee immediately stops play should the goalie be struck in the head.  I wasn’t aware of it until exactly this situation happened with Canadian netminder Jake Allen.  He took a shot near the chin (yes, the annoying dangler did its job) and instantly the referee called the play to check if he was OK.  I was amazed that such a rule exists.

The next night I was on the ice coaching two Atom CC goalies, one of whom is apparently puck shy and has a tendency to pull up on shots or turn his head, classic signs of the fear that grips us all from time to time.  After watching 10 minutes of practice it was easy to see why this was the case.  The kid only measured about 4 feet 4 inches; just the perfect height to put his head at the level of the crossbar.  As I watched, I saw that many of the shots were quite strong (CC is the 2nd highest level for Atom in Quebec) and a fair number were aimed right at the goalie’s head.  I suppose you can’t blame kids for trying to score up top; when the goalie is only 4 feet tall it makes sense.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if minor hockey applied the same rule.  That poor kid gets beaned constantly and no one seems to see that as unusual.  After the practice I talked to the whole team, giving my little sermon about how you can’t expect your goalie to be confident when you spend the practice or warmup whistling the puck past his ears…

Contrast that with the garage league I play in, where if there are hard shots consistently at head level, half the guys on the ice start yelling at the offender to keep the *F’N* puck down.  I’ve had my dangler ripped off, my helmet cracked and the wires on my cage bent inwards by the force of shots more than once.  If a goalie does get hit hard in the mask, everyone generally stops to see if he is OK.  Totally different attitude.  In minor hockey, however, I have watched dozens of games where the goalie takes a hard shot in the head and unless he is pretty much splayed out on the ice, plays continues as normal.

Maybe minor hockey needs to rethink this issue.  If the world juniors use a automatic stoppage rule, why wouldn’t we do the same for kids?  It could be left up to the discretion of the referee, but at least if there were something in the rulebook that stipulates or encourages such an intervention then young goalies might feel safer.  An overview of the Hockey Canada and NHL rulebooks reveals nothing relating specifically to play stoppage in the event of a goalie being hit in the head.  Maybe there should be some debate on this issue…

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  1. Joe Boughner

    Actually, I think the IIHF changed the rule this year; it used to be as you described but now they’ve moved to give the refs some discretion. However, many of the refs are still calling it as they used to (which is fair, I guess, since it’s up to them).

    And I can certainly relate to your Atom experience. I’ve coached Atom house league for four years and I’ve seen many high shots catch the goalie in the mask. It’s house so they shots are not really hard or anything but I was surprised to see the game carry on.

    One ref made a habit of blowing the play dead (refs have all kinds of discretion at the house level; keeping things safe is their biggest priority) but most just let them play on unless the goalies showed signs of injury.

  2. Brad

    I remember watching the 2006 Winter Olympics and they were stopping the play if a goalie took a puck to the head. Is there a difference between the IIHF rules and the IOC rules?

  3. Kris

    I could understand stopping the play if the goalie is injured, but it is what we do, put ourselves in the line of fire. I took a high shot last night and the ref asked if I was ok, I like that style, if I would have said no, I am sure he would have stopped play

  4. Paul

    Straight from the IIHF Rule/Case Book:

    Should a hard shot hit the GK’s facemask, while play in progress, the play may be
    stopped at the discretion of the Referee only if no immediate scoring chance is
    presented to the opposing team. (Rule 234d)

    Hockey Canada Rule/Case Book for 2010-2012, Rule 2.6 Note 1, does give the Referee the discretion to whistle play down if he suspects a player has sustained an injury. That has always been there (Minor Hockey). I have been refereeing for over 25 years and the safety of the players has always been paramount to me. If I see a player take a puck to the head (player or goaltender) I will blow the play dead immediately. This is minor hockey, none of these children are getting paid to get hurt. Safety first! Not winning!

  5. Alex Raymond

    I play un-refereed old-timers hockey and have been hit on the mask by pucks and sticks more times than I care to remember. I would never consider that anyone has intentionally hit my face mask, but I laugh at the realization I’m too old and slow to duck in time.
    I recall several times being hit on the mask and having an opposing player stop the game even if he is forgoing an easy rebound goal. When the player puts his hand on my shoulders to check if I’m okay, I know I’m witnessing sportsmanship in action.
    If all those who wear hockey gloves would follow this example, we could demonstrate why chasing a piece of black rubber on a sheet of ice is the best game in the world.

  6. Max

    I think we should do something because I’m sitting out in my games today and tomorrow with a mild concussion from being beamed in the helmet (not cage, helmet) it sucks

  7. Sandra

    My 11 yr old son is a goalie on a select team and he was hit hard by a slap shot right in the mask. Knocked him right off his feet. The sound of the shot was so loud everyone gasped. Of course they stopped the play cause he did not get up but there have been many times when he has been hit in the head and they do not blow the whistle to check how he is. He is a bit nervous now and has lost some of his confidence. They should always stop the play if anyone gets hit in the head. I bet if the ref was hit in the head they would blow the whistle. Safety should be top priority for everyone.