When Gophers coach Don Lucia held a film session with his players Tuesday, he didn't begin by illustrating what he wanted them to do. He started by showing them what to avoid: making dangerous, open-ice hits like the one that felled forward Tommy Novak last Saturday.
Wisconsin defenseman and team captain Eddie Wittchow was given a major penalty and a three-game suspension for charging at Novak and driving his shoulder into the forward's head, knocking him out cold in the third period of a 9-2 Gophers victory.
Lucia would like to see such hits eradicated. With players getting larger, stronger and faster — and with increased awareness of the lingering effects of brain injuries — he said the time has come to make player safety a top priority.
It's not the first time Lucia has expressed concern about reckless hits. His oldest son Tony's pro hockey career was ended by concussions, Lucia said, and he recalled a crushing open-ice check that broke defenseman Nick Leddy's jaw in 2009.
As he waits to see whether Novak will be able to play in this weekend's North Star College Cup, Lucia reiterated his stance that such hits are bad for the sport.
"The hit we saw on Novak is a hit that needs to be taken out of the game," said Lucia, who used video of the incident to remind his players to be prudent. "From a player-safety standpoint, some of these hits have to be looked at. I don't care if it's a legal hit. Should that hit take place?
"At some point, the mind-set has to change. We have to [proceed] on the side of player safety. If a wide receiver is laying out for that pass, you can't go and destroy him anymore. That needs to be taught in hockey as well. When a guy is in a vulnerable position, I'm not sure it's good for our game to make that hit."
Novak was skating through the neutral zone when the 6-4, 220-pound Wittchow blindsided him, drawing a five-minute major penalty and game disqualification for contact to the head. In the first period, Novak was smashed into the glass by Badgers forward Aidan Cavallini — a hit that drew a major penalty for checking from behind, a game misconduct and a one-game suspension.
Lucia said Novak is undergoing concussion protocol to gauge whether he is healthy enough to play Saturday against Bemidji State in the opener of the North Star College Cup at Xcel Energy Center. Novak skated briefly by himself Tuesday; Lucia said he seemed to be fine, but Novak's status might not be decided until Friday. He has two goals and 14 assists this season.
Two decades ago, Lucia said, Wittchow's hit would have been acceptable, but times are different now. Players should be taught the purpose of hitting is to separate an opponent from the puck, he said — not to inflict injury or rouse the crowd — and the responsibility should lie with players to avoid initiating reckless or dangerous contact.
Lucia said his own view has changed in part because of his son's experience. If hockey does not take player safety seriously, he added, worried parents may steer their young children toward other sports.
"There's a difference between hitting and really taking somebody out," Lucia said. "I think we have an obligation [to protect players]. If you're a parent sitting in the stands, who wants to see their son get hit like that?
"You've got to be respectful of the game. You've got to be respectful of your opponent.''