Physicality is a big part of what makes the Western Hockey League so popular, but the tough side of hockey has a downside. Still early in the Victoria Royals season, the club’s medical room is full.
Head injuries to Royals’ defencemen Zach Habscheid and Tyler Stahl have netted the kind of medical concerns blighting the game of hockey.
Throw in a a lower body injury to Brandon Magee and illness to Brenden Perseley and one of the youngest clubs in the league is even younger.
But it’s the hits to the head that are under the microscope this year with the NHL finally taking a leadership role (as seen in the popular suspension videos by new director of player safety, Brendan Shanahan). The WHL has also introduced a new Seven Point Plan, including a new checking-to-the-head penalty.
The WHL even held a special seminar for coaches and general managers in September at the league’s headquarters in Calgary.
There’s no overnight cure to reduce the amount of career-threatening concussions, but Royals coach and general manager Marc Habscheid does see the culture changing.
“Once an incident happens and the (bigger) suspensions take place (people take notice),” Habschied said, adding he can’t say how much of a role the Shanahan videos have played. “It’s pretty obvious you don’t (allow) hits to the head. I think the kids are getting it. You want to do anything you can to win but there’s a line you don’t cross.”
Zach Habscheid’s status was unknown at press time though his head was seen absorbing contact prior to leaving the ice early in the Royals’ Oct. 6 game versus the Medicine Hat Tigers at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. Zach, who is the son of coach Marc, was driven into the boards by Kale Kessy. The latter received a double minor for checking from behind and returned to the game.
Following the game the Royals chose not to comment on Zach’s injury until he underwent a full assessment.
Stahl’s incident was more clear cut, courtesy of an elbow to the head by Prince George Cougars’ forward Charles Inglis in Prince George on Oct. 1. Inglis was assessed a five-minute major and match penalty for hitting Stahl, who needed assistance to leave the ice.
The league disciplined Inglis with a 10-game suspension, effective Oct. 4.
WHL vice-president of hockey Richard Doerksen viewed the Stahl incident on video and finalized the suspension three days after consulting with league commissioner Ron Robison and director of officiating Kevin Muench.
“It was a match penalty, which is the most severe penalty in the book,” Doerksen said.
“We’ve made all of our teams and players very aware of our concerns with illegal blows to the head and the damage that can be caused. Certainly this hit, as a match penalty, was illegal. It injured the opponent. Clearly, (Stahl’s) going to be out for some period of time now as well. Those were the primary factors in it.”
Stahl’s concussion is especially tough since it isn’t the first of his career. His timeline for return is unknown, start with at least a month on the injury reserve list.
“The doctors drive the decisions on that, not the players, so we’ll take it slow and see,” coach Habscheid said.
In the meantime, the injuries are creating opportunities for younger players such as Brett Cote, Keenan Kanzing, Taylor Crunk and Luke Harrison.
As for Inglis, once his 10-game penalty is complete, it will be the longest served by a WHL player since Tri-City Americans forward Brendan Shinnamin was handed a 12-game suspension for a check from behind on Josh Nicolls of the Saskatoon Blades in October 2010.
The next biggest suspension prior to Inglis’ went to forward Cody Beach of the Moose Jaw Warriors. Beach was assessed seven games for a check to the head on Sept. 23. He was issued a five-minute major and game misconduct for his opening-night hit on Brandon Wheat Kings forward Bruno Mraz.
“That was a severe one too and if (Mraz) had been injured, it would’ve been in the same range,” Doerksen said.
“Obviously any time a player gets suspended now, that will be taken into context should he be involved in the same situation again in the future,” Doerksen said.
–With files by Alistair McInnis, Prince George Free Press