Think the NHL has any idea how to handle its ongoing concussion crisis?
Day 1 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs granted commissioner Gary Bettman and head disciplinarian Brendan Shahan a pair of golden (if unfortunate) opportunities to send a message to the players that cheap shots, especially those directed at the heads of others, will not be tolerated.
First, there was the case of Nashville Predators star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber, who viciously slammed the head of Henrik Zetterberg, the star center and alternate captain for the Detroit Red Wings, against the glass at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday.
Then, in the nightcap, Vancouver Canucks right wing Byron Bitz boarded Los Angeles Kings left wing Kyle Clifford, who's since been ruled out for Game 2 at Rogers Arena on Friday with an ever-ominous "upper-body injury."
Yet, somehow, the incidents resulted in startlingly disparate punishments (or "Shanabans," if you will). The latter earned Bitz a five-minute major penalty during the game and a two-game suspension thereafter.
A fair punishment, to be sure, considering the danger and unnecessary nature of the hit that Bitz took to Clifford's head.
And for the former? A slap on the wrist, in the form of a two-minute minor after the final horn had sounded and a $2,500 fine, the maximum fiscal penance allowed under the league's current collective bargaining agreement.
The question is: Why such a stark contrast between the two? Both were vicious blows to the head that were anything but incidental.
It could have something to do with the caliber of players involved.
The Preds-Wings incident involved two star players—Weber, a three-time All-Star, using the rink as a weapon against Zetterberg, the 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient.
Meanwhile, the one between the Canucks and the Kings saw Bitz, a lightly-used and oft-injured winger, use violent force against Clifford, a second-year reserve who saw a slight uptick in playing time after Brad Richardson went out on account of an emergency appendectomy.
As the logic goes, the league couldn't possibly have suspended Weber for two games as it did with Clifford because Weber is too important to his team's success to be removed for entire game, much less two. Clifford, on the other hand, is easily expendable.
Such would suggest a disturbing double standard, between star players and everyone else, though that doesn't appear to be the case.
At least, according to Shanahan himself. In Bitz's case, Shanny pointed out that Clifford was injured as a direct result of the play.
Which wouldn't seem like such a big deal, except for the way Shanny explained his reasoning in assessing Weber's weak punishment:
"This was a reckless and reactionary play on which Weber threw a glancing punch and then shoved Zetterberg's head into the glass. As is customary whenever Supplemental Discipline is being considered, we contacted Detroit following the game and were informed that Zetterberg did not suffer an apparent injury and should be in the lineup for Game 2.
"This play and the fine that addressed it will be significant factors in assessing any incidents involving Shea Weber throughout the remainder of the playoffs."
In other words, the result is more important than the intent. It's okay for a player to attempt to maim one of his peers, so long as he doesn't actually do it.
Shanahan's ruling essentially validates violent hits to the head while suggesting only that the offender is risking suspension if his victim can't skate straight thereafter.
If the NHL's goal is to eliminate dirty plays like the ones Weber and Bitz doled out, it can't rely on extraneous factors to determine its reaction.
Furthermore, if the league is truly determined to reduce the frequency of concussions and other head injuries (and, thus, their own future liability), they must punish harshly any presumably intentional hits above the shoulders, regardless of the outcome.
Otherwise, players will continue to test the limits, to push the envelope, as part of the "culture" of the game.
Coming down so lightly on Weber won't deter him or his fellow players from taking out cheap shots on one another whatsoever in the future.
In the immediate term, Shanahan's lackluster response leaves justice yet to be served, thereby putting the onus—if not tacitly encouraging—the Red Wings to seek revenge against the Preds on the ice, rightly or wrongly.
Whether the NHL cares or not.
So while the Kings and the Canucks go about their series with relatively good decorum from here on out, don't be surprised if the Preds-Wings series devolves in further shenanigans in the coming weeks.
And for most fingers to be pointed squarely in Shanahan's direction.
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