Monday, March 8, 2010

Double-Digit Suspensions Must Become the "New" Normal!


The NHL's General Managers are meeting in Boca Raton Florida from Monday through Wednesday to discuss headshots and several other important issues facing the league. Whether or not they accomplish anything, well that is another story, but at least the conversation is finally happening. Heading into the meetings, Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli will have fresh video evidence to bring to the table; yet another NHL player has demonstrated a total lack of respect for his fellow players.

Once again, Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins is at the center of the debate after a devastating elbow to the head of Bruins forward Marc Savard. Already in a fight for their playoff lives, the NHL’s lowest scoring team must now make their playoff push without their best player. Currently in eighth place, two points ahead of the New York Rangers and three ahead of the Atlanta Thrashers, the Bruins are in danger of slipping out of the playoff picture completely without Savard. Despite playing in only 41 games this season because of various injuries, Savard is tied for third in scoring on the team with 33 points.

With 5:37 remaining in the Bruins/Penguins game, Cooke delivered a clear elbow to the head of Savard after the Bruins forward had released a shot towards the Pittsburgh net. With no penalty called on the play, the spotlight is shinning clearly on the ineffectiveness of the NHL Rule Book. The general discussion in the NHL stems around shoulder-to-head hits amongst the players and whether a rule can be implemented to properly penalize these plays. However, Cooke’s hit had no shoulder at all; it is an obvious elbow to the face, resulting in a concussion. To put the situation in proper terms, Savard is not out with a concussion - he is out of action with a brain injury.

Once again, the answer from the offending player is offensive, to this writer at least...

“I was just finishing my check,” Cooke told the media after the game.

In the numerous interviews I have conducted with current and former hockey players, as well as Sports Legacy Institute co-founder Chris Nowinski, the questions surrounding these plays in a sport known for its hard hitting and contact is that of respect. All the players I have spoken with believed it was best left to the players to make the changes themselves, demonstrating more respect for each other; failing to do so should lead to the NHL implementing rule changes. It is safe to say, that some players have not received the message and it is time for the league to step in. Leaderless or not, the NHLPA has a duty to protect their members and should gladly work with the Commissioner’s Office to bring about a change in philosophy as to what is acceptable behaviour on the ice.

A rule change involving the type of equipment worn by the players will help eliminate some injuries from the shoulder-to-head hits but several of these plays, especially the Cooke on Savard hit, has nothing to do with the equipment being worn and everything to do with a total lack of respect for another players well-being. While it is not a certainty, what if Savard’s career is over? What if he spends the next five years battling depression, vertigo, intense migraine headaches, lacking the will to live, perhaps even leading to the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and an early death? All because Matt Cooke wanted to “finish his check.”

Coming off the high television ratings from the Olympic hockey tournament and a renewed interest in the game in the United States, plays like Cooke’s will only turn any new fans away from the game, negating any progress made during the Olympics. It is often said that American fans are not interested in the violent sport of hockey, with many analysts blaming the fighting in the league as the root of this concern. Perhaps it is the sight of seeing a young man carried off the ice on a stretcher, after losing consciousness from an elbow to the face, which is the true cause for their concern. Some believe the “Instigator” rule is the problem in the league; players cannot police themselves and some players take advantage of that fact and play on the edge between high energy and outright dirty. Even if there was no instigator rule, what does that change? So, someone beats up Matt Cooke after the play and only gets a five-minute penalty; Savard is still on a stretcher, still suffering from a brain injury.

At the current meetings, the conversation will revolve around the issue of blindside hits and creating a new rule for that situation. However, Cooke’s hit and others like it do not require a new rule, it requires immediate action. All plays are reviewable by the Commissioner’s Office and supplemental discipline can be handed out if deemed necessary by the league. The current routine of two-game suspensions and $2,000 fines does nothing to impact players making millions of dollars a year.

Perhaps it is time for the NHL to implement a rule similar to the NFL’s “Conduct Detrimental to the League” rule, where a player in Cooke’s situation is suspended, not only because of the headshot but also because there is no room in the game for players with a total lack of respect for their opponents. It is time for the league to implement a minimum 10-game suspension for a first-time offender, followed by a 15 or 20 game suspension if a player acts in an irresponsible nature again within a 16-month period. The time for letting the players sort things out and find some respect for one another has passed, it is time for the league to take action; double-digit suspensions must become the new “normal” in the NHL. My only question is this: is anyone in the league brave enough to bring about these changes? If the past is any indication, we already have that answer - no, they are not...

Photo by Dan4th on Flickr.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Woweee wow wow. What a great article. Full of opinion and no lack of passion on the topic you know so very well..concussions!!

Thanks Voice

Ed