Thursday, March 11, 2010

Instead of "No Hunting", NHL Declares "Open Season" for Headshots...

The NHL missed a tremendous opportunity for change this week with the announcement that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke will receive no suspension for his vicious hit on Boston's Marc Savard. In what could have become a bold statement of support for the Sports Legacy Institute and their research on the long-term effects of concussions and ushered in a new era of respect amongst its players, the league instead decided to keep the status quo and do nothing, with the promise of changes for next season.

A new rule is on its way to the NHL’s Competition Committee for approval in which “blindside hits to the head on an unsuspecting player” will now result in a two or five minute penalty and the possibility of supplemental discipline from the league. The first dilemma facing this rule is the fact that the referee will need to see the hit in question, which as we all know, does not always happen. The next is the fact that the league, using video replays will have to determine an intent to injure, which they have stated in the Cooke incident could not be done. How will the “intent to injure” be clearer next season when using video replays to decide if a suspension is warranted when it is not clear enough this season?

Once again, the league has failed to set out a clear and concise punishment when they believe a rule has been broken. Instead of legislating a 5, 10, or 15 game suspension, which leaves the offending players knowing exactly what penalties they face, which could act as a deterrent, the NHL has left it to the discretion of Campbell. Will a star player face the same punishment as a fourth line grinder? In a word, no...

When it comes to the issue of headshots and concussions, the NHL is worried that creating a definitive suspension will result in a star player being suspended for a lengthy period due to reckless behaviour, resulting in a loss of revenues for an NHL team. Regardless of the player’s star status, if you do something reckless, you should be punished in the same manner as anyone else. How does the owner of the Boston Bruins feel this morning, while he calculates the millions of dollars in lost playoff revenues? Without Savard, his team will continue to struggle in the goal-scoring department and could quite easily slide out of playoff contention.

Instead of being proactive, the league has revealed an unwillingness to take the necessary steps towards eradicating headshots from their game. If the NFL can implement rules to better educate and protect their players, why is the NHL slow to change? With the new rule, covering blindside hits to the head, the NHL has shown signs of recognizing the long-term effects of concussions but how many times this season have we witnessed blindside hits? Twice? The Richards hit on Booth and the Cooke hit on Savard.

In a rather lively debate last night with Ed, a regular reader at TVOS, we discussed the issues of headshots in general. Ed brought up the Chris Neil hit on Toronto's John Mitchell. I must confess, at the time of our conversation, I had only seen the replay during the game on Saturday evening, not afterwards and I mistakenly believed Neil had caught Mitchell with more of his body. However, after our conversation, I found the replay and discovered that Ed was indeed correct. Neil caught Mitchell full-force in the head with his shoulder. Unfortunately, under current rules, and the new one to be implemented next season, Neil's hit would never be penalized. Like most hockey fans, I do not wish to see good, clean hockey hits taken from the game, but Neil's hit, at the very least is a charging penalty. While he did not leave his feet and Mitchell saw him coming, the leading edge of the hit was Neil's shoulder - aimed directly at the head. These scenarios are being played out regularly in all levels of hockey and must be addressed. It comes back to the issue of respect - just because a player has lined up an opponent for a body check, must it be delivered at full speed? Surely, a hit can be as effective at a reduced speed.

Colin Campbell stated that a “precedent” was set when the league did not suspend Mike Richards for his hit on Panthers forward David Booth. However, Richards and Cooke are not in the same category when it comes to NHL suspensions. Cooke is a repeat offender, as Campbell himself points out and yet the league still does not attempt to discipline the Penguins forward. Besides Cooke’s hits on Savard, Artem Anisimov and Scott Walker, all resulting in concussions, he also went knee-on-knee with Ottawa’s Shean Donovan this season and almost ended Donovan’s career. Here is what Campbell had to say in response to his non-decision (available at TSN, and numerous other media outlets):

“No one likes when a player like Marc Savard goes down the way he did,” said Campbell. “No one likes when a player like David Booth goes down the way he did. But we have to be consistent. I know Matt Cooke is a repeat offender. He’s been suspended twice in the last year. I can’t suspend Matt Cooke for being a repeat offender. I have to find a reason. Right now, our rules say that shoulders to head are legal. Matt Cooke did not jump, and did not do anything that we found illegal in his actions, even though, again, you don’t like what happened.”

If doing nothing is remaining consistent, congratulations - you are extremely consistent! It should also be noted that Sean Avery’s comments last year about an ex-girlfriend resulted in a six game suspension for Avery. Clearly harsh words and a bad sense of humour must be taken out of the game; blindside hits can wait until next year and blatant hits to the head are completely acceptable.

Therefore, with no rule in place for the remainder of this season, one could say it is now open season on any NHL player. Losing in the first round to the Penguins, why not send a fourth line player on the ice to take out Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Losing to the Capitals, simply take out Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin. Sound ridiculous - well, under the current NHL rules, as long as the player is covert enough and does not display intent to injure, nothing can be done. Let me repeat that - Nothing Can Be Done!! Unlike other major sports leagues that react instantly to these issues, the NHL has opened up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities by clearly stating they can do nothing until next season.

The focus this week has been Matt Cooke but lets be clear here, this problem is far more involved then just one player’s actions. The lack of respect shown by one union brother to another is shameful and it continues to occur. I have no personal grudge against Cooke, far from it - during my ten years in Vancouver he was one of my favourites; bringing a tough as nails approach to hockey and always willing to step in and defend his teammates. Having said that, the fact that there are no repercussions for his hit on Savard disgusts me and I must question which direction this league is going.

While I will continue to watch hockey from a writer’s perspective, I fear my days as a fan of the NHL are numbered. The directions coming from the commissioner’s office are troubling and disjointed to say the least. Whether is was Commissioner Bettman’s fumbling of the NHL television contract, the saga of the Phoenix Coyotes and now the inability to protect the players from themselves, leading to debilitating brain injuries, this league is sinking quickly. With a house of cards, built on debt and poor leadership, the NHL is heading for troubled waters.

It is a dark day for NHL hockey and the well-being of its players...

Photo by Michael Simmons on Flickr.

1 comment:

Goon Squad said...

It's Open Season on all flightless fowl, and Todd Bertuzzi!!!