Friday, March 18, 2011

Time For Change In The NHL?

This article was first published in the March 18th edition of Main Street Magazine and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Magazine delivered right to your inbox.

*Because of publishing deadlines, this article was sent in to Main Street before the General Managers meeting - the league has taken a few small steps towards protecting their players.

For most of last week, The National Hockey League was the top news story in Canada and the United States and once again, it was for all the wrong reasons. After yet another on-ice incident that resulted in a severe injury, the league’s inability to change their attitude towards dangerous plays has come under fire from fans and for the first time, a growing list of their corporate sponsors.

At this point, I am sure everyone is quite aware of Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty - the debate has been quite heated about Chara’s actions. The point of this week’s column is not to re-evaluate the league’s failure to suspend the Boston Bruins defenceman, but rather the NHL’s response to these situations; the “everything is okay, please don’t look behind the curtain” attitude.

Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed regret that an injury occurred in the Boston - Montreal game, but failed to say that this type of injury is becoming too frequent in his league and they are prepared to make changes. Instead, he made this comment after an appearance at the US Capitol Building.

“It was a horrific injury, we’re sorry that it happened in our fast-paced physical game, but I don’t think whether or not supplemental discipline was imposed would change what happened and in fact the people in the game who I have heard from almost to a person ... believe that it was handled appropriately by hockey operations.”

The league needs to acknowledge that something has gone wrong - it will not change what happened, but it could keep it from happening repeatedly. After several of these on-ice incidents, Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard or Chara’s hit on Pacioretty to name just a few, the league has stated that no rule violations actually took place, or that they were satisfied with the punishment handed down by the referees during the game. That is small consolation for players like Savard (his career is most likely over) or Pacioretty (whether he ever returns to the league is also in question). It is time for the league to implement a rule similar to the National Football League’s “conduct detrimental to the league” policy.

After several off-field incidents involving their players, the NFL adopted this new rule. In effect, it is a rule to punish players for making the league and all of its players look bad. I called for such a rule to come into being after Cooke’s vicious hit on Savard. In Chara’s case the league could say, “Perhaps you didn’t mean to hurt your opponent, but the fact remains you did something extremely dangerous and tarnished the image of the league - here’s a four game suspension.”

It seems like a simple solution but unfortunately, it is a long and drawn out process when it comes to changes in the league. The General Managers meet to discuss these issues and then any possible rule changes are off to the league’s competition committee and the NHL Players’ Association. If you are looking for immediate change, you will be disappointed. We may see new rules in place for next season, but when the league’s motto is “everything is okay”, it is quite possible that the status quo will remain next year.

In a high impact sport like hockey, head injuries and concussions will happen; it will be difficult to eliminate them completely. The question the league must look at moving forward - can they do something to limit the risks their players face when they step on the ice and can they send a clear message to players when they go too far? As the race for playoff positions heat up and then the battles for a trip to the Stanley Cup begin, it is very likely we will witness another injury of this magnitude. Until there is real change, we will not be talking about the Vancouver Canucks and their healthy lead in the standings, the fine play of Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price or the Toronto Maple Leafs making a late-season surge for the playoffs, we will be discussing another career in jeopardy.

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