Let’s begin with one of the most serious penalties in the game today – head checking!  

This infraction can now either be called Head Checking or Elbowing. If the referee feels that the player intentionally went for the head, it can result in a game misconduct.
The "clean shoulder check to the head" is no longer allowed in minor hockey and will be penalized severely.

Anyone who has been involved in hockey over the last decade has witnessed an ever-increasing number of concussions. There may well have been a lot of concussions in the past, but people today are becoming more educated about the problem and are able to notice a concussion when it occurs.

In order to understand the seriousness of this injury, let us examine exactly what happens when a concussion occurs. 

“The brain is composed of soft, delicate structures that lie within the rigid skull. Surrounding the brain is a tough, leathery outer covering called the dura (door-a). Within the brain are (cranial) nerves that are responsible for many activities, such as eye opening, facial movements, speech and hearing. These nerves carry and receive messages that allow the person to think and function normally. There are also centers that control level of consciousness and vital activities, such as breathing. The brain is cushioned by blood and spinal fluid. There is very little extra room within the skull cavity.

An injury to the head causes the brain to bounce against the rigid bone of the skull. This force may cause a tearing or twisting of the structures and blood vessels of the brain, which results in a breakdown of the normal flow of messages within the brain. The damage to the brain generally is found deep within the brain tissue. Because of this damage, the normal functions of the brain signals are interrupted

We have all heard of professional hockey players being sidelined for weeks, months, and even life as a result of concussions.  For example, Brett Lindros was forced to quit hockey because of too many concussions. The doctors feared that another traumatic blow to the head could kill him, so Brett did the wise thing and quit hockey. 

We all must remember that “LIFE IS BIGGER THAN HOCKEY”. This is something that is hard to take for a person for whom hockey has been part of his entire life.

Eric Lindros, Brett’s older brother, is one of the most recent major athletes to have serious concussion problems that sidelined him for an entire season. He has had several concussions in his career, right from Junior hockey to the NHL.  The New York Rangers signed Lindros during the 2002-2003 season, although it was risky because one more blow to the head and his hockey career is over.

In the 2000-01 playoffs there was a violent elbow thrown by Tie Domi on Scott Niedermayer knocking him unconscious. Tie Domi received a 10 game suspension for his actions and he apologized for his thoughtless act, however the damage was done. 

There are many arguments about the ‘Heat of the Moment’ taking over, where a player sees red or is so pumped up and into the game that aggression takes over, however if the game of hockey is going to be cleaned up and players are going to learn to respect each other then the ‘Heat of the Moment’ argument will have to be thrown out the door.

The ‘Heat of the Moment’ argument will be addressed a lot in this publication. Many problems in minor hockey today are the result of negative emotional outbursts. A player is upset with a penalty call, so he argues with the referee and gets misconduct on top of everything else. Someone else takes a vicious swing at an opponent’s head in retaliation to a hard hit. The list is endless. In fact, things that generate negative emotional responses have to be minimized in hockey before the image of this great sport is further damaged. Parents and coaches must accept the fact that they have a lot to do with creating ‘heat of the moment’ reactions.


Most hockey associations around the continent have taken steps to reduce or eliminate this ever-increasing problem of head injuries and concussions by introducing a rule that will hopefully go a long way to cleaning up the game.

Referees are being advised to clamp down on deliberate blows to the head, adopting a policy that treats this infraction in the same manner as they treat hitting from behind.

Nevertheless, just as there are still checks from behind in almost every game, there will still be checks thrown at the head in almost every game until the players start to respect their opponent’s well being.

The Canadian Hockey Association, for example, has implemented a Checking to the Head rule that is designed to punish players who contact an opponent’s head with a check, elbow, fist or any other part of their body.  Players who are penalized for Checking to the Head will be assessed with one of the following three options:

1)      Minor penalty plus a Misconduct

2)      Major penalty plus a Game Misconduct

3)      Match penalty

Now that you know what a player can be assessed for committing a Check to the Head, what exactly qualifies as a Check to the Head? The following guidelines will help you get a feeling for what referees look for when deciding whether a player’s action should be deemed as a Check to the Head penalty, or if a roughing, elbowing, or charging penalty should be assessed instead.


Minimal impact to an opponent’s head will still be assessed as a penalty, although the penalty will not be assessed as a Check to the Head.  It will, instead, be called elbowing, roughing or charging.   The following are three examples of situations that would fall under the Minimal Impact definition.  


As a forward is skating into the attacking zone along the boards a defenseman skates towards him and uses his fists to hit his opponent in the chest.  As he hits the opponent his fists ride up the player’s chest and contact the head. The head snaps back, causing the player to fall to the ice. 


This would be called a roughing penalty because there was no intent to go for the head; it was a byproduct of the original hit.  There was also very little impact to the head as the brunt of the hit went to the chest area. Always keep in mind the byproduct rule. If the contact with the head is a result of original contact elsewhere on the body, it will not be called head checking. This is an important factor to consider. A first contact with the shoulder may be slight and hardly detectable to the onlooker, but the referee may be in a perfect position to see it.


This occurs quite often throughout a game. Two players are skating down the ice beside each other. As they are skating and jostling, one player may hook the other in an attempt to slow him down.  Naturally the player being hooked gets upset and throws an elbow or a punch at the head of the player hooking him. Contact with the head is made. This may seem to appear to be a clear example of head checking.


This should not be called Checking to the Head because the player throwing the elbow or punch was not propelling himself at the other player. In other words, he wasn’t going in the opposite direction. He was skating in the same direction as his opponent and therefore this would either be called an elbow or a roughing penalty.

The ‘opposite direction rule’ is an important one to remember if you are a referee. It is also an important one to remember as a player, coach or parent. The contact to the head may be quite severe, but if the person initiating the contact was not skating in the opposite direction, and was not “propelling himself” at his opponent, it should not be called a Head Check. Even though, on the surface, this may certainly look as if it was a check to the head, it is not the kind of action which would warrant a game ejection.


One of the more common situations whereby contact to the head occurs is after the whistle when players are gathered in front of the net or along the boards.  Sometimes players will exchange punches to the head of each other. Strictly speaking, this is also contact to the head.


This should be called “Roughing”,  because a check is not being thrown; a punch is!  Unless there is motion, such as a back-checking forward who skates into a player after the whistle and punches him in the head, there will not likely be any Checking to the Head penalty assessed. Roughing will most often be the call when a punch lands on a player’s head area.


Moderate Impact to an opponent’s head means that a greater degree of violence was used in the contact with the head but no injury was a result of this impact or contact to the head.  This type of action would me more likely to incur a “Minor penalty plus a Misconduct”.


Imagine that Chris Draper is battling for the puck in the corner and Darcy Tucker sees a perfect opportunity to throw a check.  Tucker is coming from across the ice and Draper is now bent over with his head exposed (side of his body against the boards and head at the top of the board height).  Tucker goes directly for Draper’s head instead of throwing a check to the upper body of Draper.  Tucker even used his shoulder to make the check, but this would still be classified as a Check to the Head under the current definition. In the “old days” this would be called a clean check because it was done with the shoulder. Nevertheless, minor hockey officials have noticed that it doesn’t matter what part of the body strikes a head, an injury can be just as severe


Even though Tucker threw a check with his shoulder he did so with obvious intent to go for his opponent’s head.  The emphasis of the rule is to protect the head, and therefore this would be a perfect example of a moderate impact situation in which to assess a Minor + Misconduct to Tucker.  This will also be a way for the referee to show the teams that going for an opponent’s head will not be tolerated. Remember that this new rule eliminates the old “clean check to the head with your shoulder” philosophy. There is no such thing as a clean check to the head any more, so you better get used to it. Of course, if Tucker had hit Draper’s shoulder, and then bounced up and hit his head, there may not have been any call on the play. It is the intent that matters the most in this case.


Severe Impact would encompass a high degree of violence and force to an opponent’s head with an obvious intent on the part of the player doing the hitting.  Regardless of whether or not there is any injury, a Major + Game Misconduct, or a Match penalty should be assessed if this type of infraction occurs in a minor hockey game anywhere in Canada and the United States.


Imagine that Eric Lindros has the puck and is skating down the boards.  When he reaches the attacking zone he starts to cut across the ice into the slot area (between hash-marks) but Scott Stevens (defenseman of the other team) sees Lindros cutting across the ice. Stevens starts to skate across the ice in the hopes of hitting Lindros as he makes his move into the slot.  Stevens is now skating towards Lindros, in the opposite direction, and intentionally throws an elbow to the head of Lindros sending him down to the ice and in a daze.  Lindros is clearly injured on the play and is unable to get up on his own strength.


Since there was a severe impact to Lindros’ head,a Major + Game Misconduct would be assessed.  On top of this, if the referee feels that Stevens was intentionally trying to injure Lindros, then this penalty may be upgraded to a Match penalty.  The fact that Lindros is injured and unable to get up would tend to sway the referee to move towards the more severe penalty.  Not only is the referee protecting further players from Stevens, he is also protecting himself from repercussions for not calling the appropriate penalty. A senior, experienced referee will not assess the match penalty immediately. He would skate over to see the injured player to determine the extent of the injury. To upgrade to a match penalty can have very serious consequences on a hockey player. However, a referee should never allow compassion to interfere with his judgment. Even if an injury doesn’t occur, if the referee is convinced that the player was attempting to injure his opponent, a match penalty should be issued as a deterrent to future similar infractions. Senior referees soon learn that there is no need to “feel sorry” for players who wish to play outside of the rules.