Why the NHL Is in Danger of Losing Fans by Policing Hard Hits

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2012

Brendan Shanahan imposes discipline on reckless hockey players.
Brendan Shanahan imposes discipline on reckless hockey players.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL does not have its head buried in the sand on all issues.

The league and commissioner Gary Bettman may be willing to take fans for granted if it chooses to follow up on the threat and lock out players on Sept. 15.

But it has not taken the health of its players for granted, especially when it comes to physical play and protecting players from vicious hits.

When superstar Sidney Crosby misses about a year-and-a-half of action after taking head shots in consecutive games in Jan. 2011 (source: USAToday.com), the NHL takes notice.

When Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins saw his career come to a grinding halt because of a vicious head shot and when Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers made no progress after suffering a concussion last year, it just underscores the issue.

To prevent these vicious hits from becoming more a part of the game, the NHL has been policing the head shot issue.

Players who target opponents and make contact with their heads are in danger of getting suspended by chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan for a significant period, especially when it's a player with a track record.

That was the case last spring, when noted agitator Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes blasted Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa with a headshot.

The result was disturbing, as Hossa had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher and was done for the remainder of the playoffs. Torres was suspended 25 games by Shanahan (source: NBCSports.com), although Bettman later reduced the suspension to 21 games following an appeal by Torres.

However, punishing players for competing hard and using a physical style will have an impact on fans.

Fans love to see big hits. They love physical play. While it makes sense to ban head shots, given the concussion problem in contact sports like hockey and the danger of future health issues for all players who take hard hits, it may make for a less entertaining night of action when fans attend games in person or watch them on television.

Not all hockey fans want to see the skill plays all the time. Some fans love the big body crunch in the corner or the full-speed open-ice hit more than they love the slick pass or the great save. These fans believe that policing players and imposing severe penalties on hard-hitting players is changing the game.

Changing it for the worse.

While logic says this is not so, there is a fair amount of blood lust in hockey.

Some fans may want the home team to win, but they also want to see a fight on the ice. When they don't see a physical confrontation on the ice, they are disappointed.

When they don't see big hits on the ice, they are also disappointed.

This is a byproduct of attempting to make the game safer.

It's a consequence that could impact the bottom line of the league, but tough decisions often have to be made in business.

Punishing players who target the head and are reckless on the ice is the right way for the NHL to oversee its business. Some fans may not like it and they may refuse to spend their money on the sport as a result.

That's painful for the league, but it can't change the current impetus to protect the short-term and long-term health of its players.