Blindside hit raises questions about player safety
Johnny Beecher didn’t know what hit him.
During the first period of Michigan’s 3-0 win over Arizona State, the sophomore forward was chasing after a loose puck trying to get into the offensive zone when suddenly he was knocked off his feet. What had hit him was Sun Devils senior defenseman Jacob Wilson — who had come barreling across the ice and angled sideways directly into Beecher to lay him out.
Play was immediately stopped and Beecher was slow to get up. He left the game and did not return for precautionary reasons as he went through concussion protocol.
“I think that's the hit that we're trying to get out of our game,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Not only at our level, but in the NHL.”
In college hockey, hits to the head are reviewable and the player can be assessed a major penalty and a game misconduct. Walker’s hit was reviewed, but ultimately it was deemed there was no direct contact to the head, and he was assessed a minor penalty for charging.
Pearson was displeased with the call and felt Walker was targeting Beecher and should have been punished more heavily.
“You're hitting a defenseless player,” Pearson said. “He doesn't have the puck. He's reaching for it and he's engaged with another player. Then the guy comes from quite a distance and he's got one thing on his mind.”
There are several factors to consider when looking at the hit. Walker comes from the other side of the ice and is lining up for the hit while Beecher is still in control of the puck. Beecher then loses the puck, puts his head down and gets hit immediately after. Because it's a bang-bang play, there is a grey area around how severe of a hit this is.
Open ice hits — even legal ones — tend to be pretty brutal because the boards aren’t there to absorb any of the contact. Instead, the players hit the ice hard. Walker does not leave his feet and leads with his shoulder on the hit, but he also comes from a long way out and catches Beecher up high when he is in a defenseless position.
This was not the only controversial hit that occurred in the Big Ten this weekend. In the contest between Notre Dame and Wisconsin, Fighting Irish forward Colin Theisen leveled Badgers forward Cole Caulfield with a blindside, open-ice hit.
In this case, Theisen was assessed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct. It was another instance of a player already committed to making the hit and coming from a long way out, and when the actual contact occurred, the player getting hit had lost control of the puck. Pearson pointed to this play as evidence for why Walker’s hit should have been further penalized.
There are more rules in place to try to limit head contact, especially with the increased concern around concussions and CTE. But dangerous hits like these are still occurring and the discrepancy in calls between the two from this weekend proves it’s still unclear how to control them and determine what warrants more punishment.
“Hockey's a physical game,” Pearson said. “There's a lot of good hitting in the game but you have to be careful on those where you're targeting a player.”
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