Sam Ward’s high-profile injury has added urgency to considerations as to whether or not anything can be done to increase player safety in hockey, writes Cris Maloney
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While wearing protective equipment can prove to be very helpful in reducing an injury-prone area of the hockey athlete’s body, for some, the only approach to reducing injuries is to engineer away the problem — gloves for hands, mouth guards for teeth, helmets for goalkeepers. They think there must be a player safety product to fit every possible problem — real or perceived.
While some engineering is great – mouth guards, shin protection, and gloves come to mind – I prefer to think seriously about whether or not there are any simple rule changes that could be incorporated into the game that would reduce the likelihood and severity of injuries without radically changing the sport.
The FIH has worked extensively to make the game safer than it was when I was a competitive player. The rule change to the free hit that allows for athletes to self-start is perhaps the single greatest contributor to player safety in the last 50 years. Two other big ones are the indirect circle entry requirements for attacking free hits approaching the circle and requiring the ball to leave the circle before a goal can be scored on a PC. The game is also more enjoyable to play, umpire, and watch. The point is, some rule changes not only increase player safety, they can also lead to positive unintended consequences.
Naturally, with all the legitimate improvements that have been made to the sport to reduce injuries, there is added attention and focus on the remaining areas where injuries remain high — the PC and shots on goal.
Some wonderfully qualified individuals in the sport have looked to eliminate the PC all together — a suggestion that lands with a thud and is cast out as heresy.
Regarding shots on goal, there is demonstrated inconsistency in how danger is judged. Members of the coaching community will argue, when a call of danger on a shot is applied against their team, that a shot on goal cannot be considered dangerous unless the ball hits a defender. This special “condition” is only applied to shots on goal. Elsewhere on the field, there is little argument that a ball that nearly takes off a player’s head is dangerous even though the ball didn’t actually hit the player. There is also confusion within the umpiring community as to what constitutes danger. A high-level, FIH panel umpire was picked up on a hot mic, incorrectly explaining to players that a shot on goal cannot be dangerous because it is a shot on goal.
It seems to me that there is an opportunity to greatly reduce the severity of injuries by making two simple rule changes. These changes are not so radical that, for example, they would eliminate the PC. They are changes that would be well understood.
BEGINNING OF FIRST CHANGE
No shots on goal — ever — shall be allowed by a player using a hitting action that results in the ball crossing the goal-line or to be on a path to cross the goal-line higher than 460 mm (18 inches) unless the ball is deflected. Yes, this would eliminate the relative excitement of a ball traveling at 100mph that is hit to the top of the net but, it would encourage development of other exciting scoring skills and plays that would have less disastrous consequences than when a ball with that velocity strikes a player’s head.
HOW IT WOULD LOOK
8. Method of scoring
8.1 Subject to the conditions in 8.2 being met, a goal is scored when the ball is played within the circle by an attacker and does not travel outside the circle before passing completely over the goal-line and under the crossbar.
[NEW] 8.2 No shots on goal shall be allowed by a player using a hitting action that would result in the ball, unless deflected, crossing the goal-line or to be on a path to cross the goal-line higher than 460 mm (the height of the backboard).
BEGINNING OF SECOND CHANGE
On PCs, all first shots would have the same restriction as currently applied to hits. The first shot at goal during a PC, regardless of what skill is used, the ball, unless it is deflected, would have to cross the goal-line, or be on a path to cross the goal-line, at a height not more than 460 mm (the height of the backboard). Yes, this would eliminate the use of a very high lift (flick or scoop) as a first shot during penalty corners but, [a] how often is that used and [b] given the added safety that no raised shots as a first shot on penalty corners would bring, it’s more than a fair trade off.
RULE BOOK CHANGE
13.3 Taking a penalty corner:
On the first shot at goal, the ball must cross the goal-line, or be on a path which would have resulted in it crossing the goal-line, at a height not more than 460 mm (the height of the backboard) before any deflection, for a goal to be scored. Guidance: If the first shot will be too high crossing the goal-line it must be penalized even if the ball is subsequently deflected off the stick or body of another player. The PC changes described above would apply to hockey and indoor hockey.
WOULD IT CHANGE SAFETY?
It’s exciting for the attack when a PC is awarded or a high hit is taken at goal but, that has to be balanced by how cringe worthy those same things are for defenders (and their parents).
These are two simple changes that within two years, I predict, would go unnoticed. Sure, members of the old guard (like me) would be watching from the stands saying, “Remember when we could hit ball into the top of the net?”
This article was adapted from our January edition
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