Worst fear comes true: player dies after headshot
It was a weekend for injury news. Sidney Crosby's broken jaw and lost teeth probably topped the hockey infirmary headlines. His Penguins teammate, Paul Martin, is also out for many weeks with a broken wrist. Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg is nursing a groin injury. And while I don't follow NCAA basketball, my Twitter feed told me of the horrific broken leg suffered by Louisville's Kevin Ware. And many MLB teams will go into their season openers with at least one player out or questionable.
But these injuries are nothing -- nothing -- compared to the death of Dmitri Uchaykin on Sunday.
This is the fatality we've been dreading for years, one caused by a pro hockey player delivering a head shot to another. This is why a number of commentators and analysts have continually suggested the NHL adopt rules that render these hits illegal, then strengthen the regulations so violators are consistently penalized and punished severely. That would be a real deterrent, especially to those who would willfully hit another player in the head.
To its credit, the NHL responded -- somewhat. For the first time, new rules put the onus on the checker to avoid the puckcarrier's head and penalized targeting it. And there is most certainly a heightened awareness on the medical front and among the players and clubs of the dangers. But the application of the rules can be inconsistent and the punishment too frequently does not fit the crime. And now we know what has long been suspected: The crime has the potential to be fatal.
Uchaykin, a 32-year old winger for HC Ertis-Pavlodar in the Kazakhstan Vyschaya Liga (Kazakhstan's top league), seems to have been hit hard -- EuroHockey.com called it a "violent charge" -- during last Thursday's Game 2 of a semi-final playoff series against HC Arystan. Donatas Kumeliauska of Arystan was named as the culprit who delivered the blow.
Yes, it's all so far away. These are all very unfamiliar names in a very unfamiliar league from a very unfamiliar part of the world for most NHL fans. But the problem is not unfamiliar.
At first, there was no video in public circulation of the actual incident -- which was too bad in one way because we didn't get to see a typical, over-the-top episode that had such an awful result. On the other hand, having no video mercifully deprived our perverse voyeuristic impulse, which is accepted as normal in North America. Oh, how we thrive on multiple viewings of the most repulsive events, sporting or otherwise. Did we really need to see again and again Crosby getting slammed in the face by a puck, followed by the same shot in slow motion so we could see the teeth flying out of his head? That footage was on every Saturday hockey telecast -- and a few on Sunday, too -- just in case it didn't sink in the first dozen times. Once was quite enough. Thankfully, the rest of humanity exhibits more good taste, decorum and restraint.
Harrison Mooney of Yahoo's PuckDaddy blog found the useful YouTube video at the top that shows Uchaykin, number 17 in blue, in action during the game, and then the aftermath of the hit, starting around the 37-second mark of the clip. At that point, we see Kumeliauska pleading his case to the referee, then Uchaykin's teammates helping him to his feet and him leaving the ice. Some reports said that he was taken off the ice on a stretcher, but that's plainly not accurate. Skating on his way to the bench, Uchaykin gestures to the ref, demonstrating the arm action that Kumeliauska allegedly used to injure him -- a thrust elbow or forearm -- and then he bends over in obvious discomfort.
For a while, that was all we had. Now we have something more.
At the 54 second mark, Uchaykin corrals the puck at the defensive blueline, turns, takes a long stride, spots a teammate and makes a pass. Kumeliauska comes in late, straight at him. It would probably be a late hit by NHL standards. If you freeze the video, in the lower right corner of the frame, it appears that Kumeliauska hits him high and brings his left arm up to Uchaykin's head, although the picture is not especially clear.
Judging by the discussion at the bench between the officials and the protesting HC Ertis-Pavlodar coach, no penalty was called on the play.
Sovietsky Sports reported that Uchaykin played a few more shifts, but seems not to have finished the game. It's uncertain whether the Kazakhstan league has any provisions for players receiving immediate medical attention after violent incidents that involve their heads. Eurohockey.com reports that he spent the night at home, but felt sick on Friday morning and was taken to the hospital. By the time he got there, he had lapsed into a coma. He lay unconscious for two days before passing away early Sunday morning from a cerebral hemorrhage.
The league was reportedly deciding if some sort of supplementary discipline will follow.
If nothing else, Uchaykin's death is the most immediate example to date of the danger posed by deliberate hits to the head. We often reference the mounting evidence that repeated concussions can, over time, bring about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that is closely related to Alzheimer's disease and believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. But here's a case where one single blow to the head killed a player.
Some people are likely to dismiss this as totally random, a bad accident, a fluke. To the best of our knowledge, it has never happened before. And these people would counsel the hockey world to not overreact.
But the correct response would be similar to what the NHL did when a young spectator in Columbus, Brittanie Cecil, was accidentally killed in 2002 by a puck shot into the stands -- something that had never happened before. The league reacted by immediately installing protective netting in the end zone of every NHL arena.
The response here should equally preventative. The NHL should reexamine the severity of the punishments it doles out for non-accidental hits to the head, focus on how much of a deterrent they have been thus far, and weigh that against the potential for a head shot to kill a player. But an NHL player should not actually have to die before the league takes that step, gets a little tougher, and sends the message that shots to the head won't be tolerated.
This past weekend, Nate Thompson of the Lightning was given a mighty two-game ban for an elbow to the head of the Devils' Matt D'Agostini.
No, Thompson's hit apparently didn't injure D'Agostini, but, as we've often pointed out over the years, if the league's system of punishment is based on a play's outcome -- the existence of an injury -- rather than the perpetrator's intent, it softens the ability to limit illegal play. And limiting dangerous play should be the goal of NHL justice.
A two-game ban seems to be the standard for first-time offenders this season, but the four previous two-game sentences didn't stop Thompson from engaging in this "reckless" play, to use Brendan Shanahan's characterization of it. And they certainly won't stop someone in a more malicious frame of mind.
Will this needed change take place? You already know the answer. As we and many others have said before, no one among those involved seems to want lengthy suspensions that would be real deterrents. The coaches don't, the GM's don't, the owners don't, the players themselves don't, their agents don't, and their union doesn't. Until that changes, it's pretty doubtful that much else will.
Dmitri Uchaykin leaves a wife, who is pregnant, and a young daughter.