Enough is enough: Jacob MacDonald is second player in five days to be stretchered off the ice for contact to the head

Mile High Sports

December 12, 2021

Avalanche defenseman Jacob MacDonald is the first NHL player to get stretchered off the ice in a regular-season game in five days.

Five days.

Five days since Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba obliterated Chicago’s Jujhar Khaira with a hit that made initial contact with the head despite the principal point being the chest. That’s the explanation from the league on why Trouba went unpenalized for the play that saw Khaira, who has a history of concussion issues, get stretchered off the ice and transported to a local hospital.

MacDonald was thankfully feeling better as the night progressed. The Avalanche defeated the Florida Panthers 3-2 in a potential Stanley Cup Final preview on Friday but something felt off. And it has for decades in this league.

We’ve watched defenseman Cale Makar scoring at a clip we haven’t had from a defenseman in over 30 years and Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras pull off one of prettiest plays we’ve ever seen and none of that will help this game grow if we’re going to continue to see players get stretchered off the ice for legal hits that make contact with the head.

“What is that two now in a week that you’ve seen guys get stretchered off and knocked out cold,” Avs defenseman Erik Johnson said. “That’s not good for our game.”

Trouba did it again less than 24 hours after his hit on Khaira. He laid out Avs center Nathan MacKinnon on yet another play that went unpenalized. Once again, because it was legal within the rulebook. MacKinnon was lucky to shake it off and finish the game.

I often refrain from using the word ‘clean’ when referencing hits of this nature. It’s hard to be convinced — knowing what we know now about head injuries and concussions — that a player getting knocked out the way MacDonald did is the result of something defined as clean. Whether it’s legal or not.

And it’s the legality of the hit that’s in question.

“I think he kind of targeted him in a tough position,” Johnson said. “But you know, it happens fast. And unfortunately, those hits are still part of our game and it’s happening less and less.”

The solution isn’t simply an easy fix. But something needs to be done. The NHL should prioritize eliminating hits that make contact with the head in any fashion.

Football players in the NFL learned how to tackle without helmet-to-helmet contact. Even professional wrestling, a violent sport for the sole purposes of entertainment, has seen a corporation as vast as the WWE ban chair headshots — once a staple of the company’s marketing push.

Hockey players can also adapt.

“You got to be careful when you’re going in with guys. Certain situations with their head down, I think I see lots of instances where guys lay off hits just to be safe but some guys, that’s how they make their living, playing physical and making hits like that or similar to that,” head coach Jared Bednar said. “Lots of times guys just bounce right back up. Every once in a while they just get caught wrong like Jake did tonight.”

Within hockey itself, the International Ice Hockey Federation bans hits to the head. There are some grey areas within their rulebook — some exceptions — but for the most part, all of the hits referenced above would lead to some sort of discipline if played with IIHF rules.

The NCAA also has more stringent rules pertaining to head hits — although they’re also not as clear cut as simply banning them completely. Albeit players are more often ejected at the official’s discretion for hits to the head.

It’s still a work in progress. But work is being done.

It’s very much possible to protect the sanctity of hockey but eliminate hits to the head. Just moments after MacDonald was stretchered off, his teammate Samuel Girard laid out a much bigger Carter Verhaeghe with a clean, hard, hit.

And it was entertaining.

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