Where do we draw the line on injuries in the NHL?
Bobby Orr would like to see it redrawn at center ice, while Scotty Bowman wants it painted across the top of the faceoff circles. Both hockey legends say their solutions would add more needed "barriers" on the ice that would slow down the incidence of injuries and resulting suspensions without taking away from the fast-paced entertainment of the game.
In the lockout-abbreviated 48-game NHL season of 2013, there were 16 suspensions, resulting in 46 missed games. Entering Wednesday's games, a total of eight suspensions and 35 missed games have been doled out so far by the NHL's office of player safety—and that doesn't count the likely whopping suspension still to come for Buffalo's John Scott.
Despite all kinds of tutorials to players from the player safety officer—videos, in-person meetings, literature, etc.—it does seem like all we're talking about so far this season is matters related to supplemental discipline.
The league isn't happy about it. It wants us to be talking about the wonders of Sidney Crosby and the hot start of Patrick Roy and the Avalanche more than John Scott. But NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says it's far too early to call this a suspension epidemic.
"It's always bothersome when players cross the line on the ice, and suspensions become necessary. But I think it's way too early to be drawing conclusions from what has happened to this point in the season. Too small a sample size," Daly told Bleacher Report.
When the league took out the red line after the lockout of 2004-05, its intent was to boost scoring, add more "flow" and make it tougher for coaches to trap all night with a one-goal lead. While scoring numbers have fluctuated and teams still trap to an extent, the rule change accomplished the league's goal by and large.
But esteemed hockey people like Orr believe taking out the red line has made it more dangerous for players in open ice. The added speed of the game with no red line, he believes, has made big open-ice hits and freight-train runs of players into the boards more inevitable.
In his fantastic new autobiography, Orr: My Story, the Hall of Fame defenseman says:
If I were commissioner for a day, the first thing I would do is bring back the center red line as one way to reduce high-speed collisions...Hockey is a tough game, and that's what attracts a lot of people to it. But when you have freewheeling players skating at 20-plus miles an hour gaining speed through the neutral zone without any off-sides worries, then guys are going to get run over....that is exactly what we've been seeing over recent years: previously undead-of-numbers of concussions, often involving top-end players, and regrettably often with long-term implications. It's one thing to have your knees beaten up through wear and tear. But the brain is another issue altogether, and I have a feeling we are hurting rather than helping solve the problem with all these new rules.
I talked with another hockey person who holds some esteem in the game, Scotty Bowman, and he had an interesting take. Bowman wouldn't take out the red line, but he would put a line across the top of the faceoff circles. Any pass before that line and beyond the red line would constitute an offsides pass.
"I'd like to eliminate the pass from the goal line to the far blue line," Bowman told Bleacher Report. "I don't like the defenseman who has no skill being able to just throw the puck up the glass and down the ice to a guy at the blue line. Teams wouldn't be able to trap. There's a game in Canada called Ringette, and my idea is based on that."
Otherwise, Bowman doesn't see too many ways to cut down on increased player speed and the violent collisions that can occur—not all of which are going to be clean.
Is the NHL becoming too much of a "police state," with too much video review of every hit?
"If you don't move your feet now, you have to be a pretty brainy player," Bowman said. "Guys today, their conditioning is superb and they don't play long shifts anymore. Everybody is full of energy and going 100 miles an hour."
The NHL's emergency player assistance fund, administered by NHL executive Brian O'Neill from his Montreal office, keeps getting regular deposits. Good for the ex-players who need it, but not great for a league that wants people talking about other things.
"I know Brian, and I know he's got a busy job right now, parceling that money out," Bowman said.
I can't go forward without making another mention of the legendary Bowman. Earlier in the week, he was in Oakland, visiting his daughter and relaxing.
But do you think the 80-year-old all-time leader in coaching victories and overall Stanley Cup rings as a coach or front-office executive (13) is just lounging around—as would be perfectly reasonable to expect? That would be a no.
He planned to fly to Phoenix to catch up on the Coyotes later in the week and then on to home base in Florida, where he goes to nearly every Lightning game when in town as part of his role as an executive with the Chicago Blackhawks.
During the last lockout, Bowman estimates he watched more than 100 AHL games in person.
"Still love the game, still want to be a part of it," Bowman said.
Hats off to Sharks coach Todd McLellan for this take, when asked after a game last week in Boston whether Zdeno Chara should be suspended for a hit on Tommy Wingels:
"You know what, every time somebody is hit now we quickly run to the video and we analyze – was it legal, was it illegal? It's a hard game, and it's played by hard players that have to get involved physically night in and night out," McLellan told CSN Bay Area. "They have to take some lumps, too. We have to give some lumps, we have to take some lumps. If it's dirty, I think it should be severely dealt with. If it's hard hockey, than so be it."
Indeed, too many people who don't know hockey want to sanitize it to the point of being basketball on skates. Yeah, cheap shots are still happening, but I see a league that is being pretty proactive about it with all kinds of rules changes and increased video surveillance and punishment from Brendan Shanahan's office. The NHL, by the way, was the first major pro-sports league to establish baseline tests for concussions. So the charge that it doesn't care about that serious issue doesn't wash.
PLUS (three items from the last week in the NHL to cheer)
- On Tuesday, it was announced that the Blackhawks would visit the White House on Monday to be saluted by President Obama for winning the Cup. But the Blackhawks will also make a visit to Walter Reed Medical Center to visit wounded veterans. Classy move.
- Nice to see John-Michael Liles called up from the minors by the Maple Leafs the other day. Liles, a tremendous teammate who I say still has plenty to offer an NHL team, suffered from Roberto Luongo Contract Syndrome before the season. Liles still has a cap hit of $3.875 million for this and the following two seasons, making him tough to move.
- Want to know one of the biggest reasons I re-up my Center Ice package every year? Yes, to keep up on the game, silly. But also to catch as many Buffalo Sabres games as I can. No, not to actually watch the wretched Sabres play hockey, but to listen to their amazing play-by-play man, Rick Jeanneret. He's been at the mic in Buffalo since 1971-72 and still has the most hockey passion of anyone in the building.
MINUS (one item from the last week to jeer)
Look, I get it that Dallas Eakins was happy to beat the Canadiens last Tuesday in Montreal, because lord knows there haven't been many wins for him to talk about so far in his coaching tenure with Edmonton.
But when Eakins essentially credited the win to some bulletin-board material said by Montreal's Lars Eller—that the Oilers "play a little bit like a junior team, I think, sometimes. ...They take a lot of risks. ... They're a little all over the place," per Canoe.ca—he not only shortchanged his team in a way, but also falsely accused Eller of true disrespect.
The fact is, the Oilers do look like a junior team a lot of the time with the style they play. Eller wasn't calling them a junior team, per se, just that their style resembled one at times. Yeah, I know that can easily be interpreted as a cheapie, and Eller probably won't do that again.
For Eakins to gloat and say the Canadiens might as well have given him a "fruit basket and a bottle of wine," per Yahoo! Sports' Angela Sun, was something of a cheap shot in itself. Act like you've been there, Dallie.
Adrian Dater has written about the NHL for 18 years and covers the Avalanche for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.