NHL Won't Make Game Safer Unless Repeat Offenders Are Severely Punished

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 03: Patrick Kaleta #36 of the Buffalo Sabres gets a penalty for checking from behind and a game misconduct as he hits Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers into the boards at Madison Square Garden on March 3, 2013 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Sabres 3-2 in the shootout. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Patrick Kaleta's dirty hit from behind on New York Rangers forward Brad Richards during Sunday night's game will almost certainly result in a suspension, so the question is how many games the Buffalo Sabres enforcer should receive for the latest in a growing list of dangerous hits he's made in his NHL career.

The league will talk with Kaleta on Monday, according to Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet, but the Sabres forward will not receive a suspension longer than five games, because it's not an in-person hearing at the league office.

The fact that Kaleta's suspension will be only five games at the most is pathetic, but sadly it's not surprising because the league has done an incredibly poor job of handling player discipline since former NHL forward Brendan Shanahan became the head of the Department of Player Safety last season.

What does Kaleta have to do before he is given a proper punishment for his dangerous play? He has proven throughout his career that he has little respect for his opponents and isn't able to understand the danger he's putting these players in by dishing out dirty hits all over the ice.

Fortunately for Richards, he was able to return to the game, but it could have been a lot of worse after watching the way he crashed into the boards headfirst. Kaleta was given a major penalty for checking from behind and was ejected from the game.

Here is the video of Kaleta's hit:

"If we're all gonna look at each other's numbers and ram each other from behind headfirst into the boards I don't know what game he plays, actually," said Richards after Sunday's game (via Katie Strang of ESPN.com) "He doesn't play hockey to begin with. Same guy, all the time."

Rangers head coach John Tortorella also told Strang, "It's probably one of the most dangerous hits I've ever seen. It's ridiculous."

If Shanahan really wants to make players think twice about hitting opponents who are in vulnerable positions (like Richards in this instance) and force "repeat offenders" to play safer, the league must suspend players like Kaleta, who have a history of awful hits, for many games.

This is the same Patrick Kaleta who headbutted Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek last year and received a four-game suspension from Shanahan. It was the third time he headbutted an opponent during his career. He also ended Paul Kariya's career with a reckless elbow to the head.

In total, Kaleta has been suspended two times in his career, so it's clear that any prior punishment he's received has failed to deter him from playing in a reckless fashion.

Until the league starts handing out serious suspensions that are longer than five games, some players will never learn.

The NHL had a great opportunity to make an example of Kaleta and show the rest of the league that repeat offenders who continue to break the rules will lose many games to suspension, but nearly every time Shanahan is presented with a chance to show he's serious about player safety, he blows it. Kaleta is just the latest example.

There are two recent examples of when the NHL got it right. Repeat offenders Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres changed the way they played the game when the NHL decided to give them suspensions of 10-plus games.

Cooke has not been suspended since the start of the 2011-12 season, and Torres has played much safer in 2013 following the 25-game suspension he received in the playoffs last year. Both have returned from huge suspensions as changed players because they know one more dirty, suspension-worthy hit could jeopardize their careers.

Kaleta's lack of respect for his opponents and his dirty play has to stop. It's embarrassing and has no place in this game. He should not get a shorter suspension (five games or less) just because Richards was healthy enough to come back to the game.

The NHL has allowed injuries (or lack thereof) to impact its suspension decisions way too much since Shanahan took over. It's the intent that is the worst part of these dangerous hits, and Kaleta won't learn how to play safer until he is severely punished with a lengthy suspension.

Hopefully the league is not trying to avoid the new appeals process that was created in the last round of collective bargaining during the lockout, because that would be irresponsible. The NHL should suspend players for the appropriate amount and force the NHLPA to look bad if it appeals.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr must show some leadership in this situation and make the necessary changes to the Department of Player Safety so that the sport is safer in an era when players are faster and hit harder than ever.

The league shouldn't wait until someone is terribly hurt before it starts making sure guys play safer by giving out lengthy suspensions.


Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.