Let’s talk about respect.
When a NHL player suffers a concussion as the result of a collision with another player, the hits generally fall under two categories.
The first is that of a legal hit in which the head isn’t targeted, but absorbs some of the force of the blow. Sometimes the head contact isn’t intended or the blow to the head is an accident. Either way, it’s the type of injury that is the price of doing business in a high-speed sport filled with gigantic, strong players.
The second is the type of hit that leads to discussions about the level of respect between NHL players. Those are the filthy ones, the ones where the head is targeted, the hit is avoidable and the damage is wholly unnecessary.
Brad Richards of the New York Rangers has first-hand knowledge of the damage a questionable hit to the head can cause. Near the end of the 2010-11 season, he missed 10 games with a concussion as the result of an elbow from Sami Pahlsson of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Richards is one of the more thoughtful players in the game, and it when it comes to measuring respect levels today compared to when he first came into the league in 2000, he’s not interested in looking at it that way.
Richards’ plan for eradicating those hits in which the head is targeted is basic. He doesn’t put the burden on the NHL or Brendan Shanahan. Instead, he believes the responsibility falls on the players themselves to stop being idiots and stop going out of their way to hit someone in the head.
It’s so simple it’s genius.
“It still all comes down to us on the ice,” Richards said Tuesday. “It always comes down to that. If you’re willing to do something to someone’s head, and you did it on the street, you’d be in jail. Fighting, honest fighting, that’s part of the game. Going after people’s heads, that has to come from within the players. Suspensions obviously aren’t scaring anybody.
“There’s definitely more emphasis on head injuries, like there should be. We’re not living in a dinosaur age here. We’ve got to realize that head trauma does affect the brain and later on in life. That’s knowledge we do know now.
“There’s always hits to the head. The game’s faster and bigger. But it’s the ones that are not hockey plays that draw the most attention and they have to go.”
The topic of respect within the NHL arose this week after Saturday’s contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins had a pair of incidents that certainly weren’t hockey plays. They were more like criminal acts that occurred on skates.
It started with Penguins forward James Neal, who lived with Richards when they were both in Dallas, committing a skate-by kneeing of the head of Brad Marchand while he was down on the ice. It ended a few seconds later when Boston’s Shawn Thornton slew-footed Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to the ice and beat him unconscious with three gloved punches.
Earlier in the game, Orpik delivered a clean hit to Boston’s Loui Eriksson that left him concussed. That’s why Thornton turned into a bloodthirsty lunatic that would not stop until he pummeled Orpik into a concussed state of his own.
Richards didn’t see the game and didn’t want to cast judgment on the incidents specifically, but his answer was again the obvious.
“I saw highlights,” Richards said. “Unless you’re there and you know what’s going on, it’s tough to comment. But at the same time, we’re the players that have to get that under control.”
But are these hits of disrespect something new in today’s NHL? Not really.
Throw a dart at a list of NHL seasons, and you’ll find one that has its share of questionable hits. This season alone, there’s been Patrick Kaleta’s elbow on Jack Johnson; John Scott driving his forearm into the head of the aforementioned Eriksson and Zack Kassian wildly swinging his stick and breaking Sam Gagner’s jaw in the process.
You get the point. This isn’t exactly new.
Want to go back a little further? Who can forget Chris Simon hitting Ryan Hollweg in the jaw with his stick and later in the year stomping on the leg of Jarkko Ruutu with his skate in 2007? How about Todd Bertuzzi ending the career of Steve Moore in 2003? Maybe Marty McSorley hitting Donald Brashear in the head with his stick in 2000?
Too recent? Let’s jaunt back to 1993 when Dale Hunter brutalized Pierre Turgeon during a playoff game. A quick stop off in 1987 shows Dave Brown cross-checking Tomas Sandstrom across the face. In 1978, Wilf Paiement hit Dennis Polonich in the face with his stick.
We can take this silly discussion of respect in today’s NHL all the way back to 1933, when Eddie Shore was hit with a 13-game suspension for hitting Ace Bailey over the head with his stick.
Make sure you watch that last video. The story rings true today and shows there's probably no end to the respect issue in the NHL. As long as there have been skates touching ice, there have been players doing incredibly malicious things to other players. To the credit of Shanahan and the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, they’re doing more than anyone has to rein in the idiocy.
In 2010-11, the final year of Colin Campbell handing out suspensions, he banned 38 players for a total of 129 games. When Shanahan took over supplemental discipline in 2011-12, he proceeded to suspend 57 players for a total of 205 games. During last year’s lockout-shortened season, Shanahan suspended 22 players for a total of 57 games. Through a little less than half of this season, 23 players have been suspended a total of 93 games with Thornton's hearing still TBD.
What has the NHL’s new rules about checks to the head (implemented for the 2010-11 season), and the NHL's enforcement of them, done to reduce concussions? As Richards pointed out, nothing at all, as a Toronto doctor reported in July 2013.
Neurosurgeon and concussion researcher Dr. Michael Cusimano of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and his colleagues compared concussion rates before and after the NHL introduced rules against hits to the head.
"The rate of concussion did not decrease," Cusimano said in an interview. "It in fact increased the first year and in the second year in the NHL it stayed stable. So we didn't see a decline like I think everyone had hoped, including the NHL, who said brought in primarily for player safety."
The NHL changed its rules to make bodychecking another player with the head as the main point of contact illegal in the 2010-11 season. The following year, the rule was modified to include all hits to the head with referees using their discretion on whether the contacted player put himself in a vulnerable position.
Every concussion isn’t the result of one of those no-respect hits, and there’s no way to quantify which suspensions are the result of something that can be as subjective as a hit that lacks respect. But head injuries are on the rise despite the league’s best intentions.
It all goes back to the wise words of Richards—if players continue to needlessly target the heads of their fellow players, the NHL will never reduce the number of head injuries no matter how many players Shanahan suspends. It seems crazy to say the NHL has a problem with players attempting to intentionally injure other players, but here we are in 2013 with the same problem that existed in 1933.
Best of luck rooting out 80 years of incivility.
Here are some stray thoughts about hockey:
• Jarome Iginla made his return to Calgary as a member of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night, and it must've felt like he never left. That's because the Flames gave up two goals in the final seven minutes of the third period and lost 2-1.
• The salary cap for 2014-15 is expected to be around $71 million, which is close to $7 million more than this season's cap. That means more money for free agents this summer, but it also means the Islanders will have to spend a few more dollars to reach the higher cap floor. Hopefully there will be some retired contracts the Islanders can acquire in order to comply with league rules.
• Ryan Callahan will miss 4-6 weeks with a sprained left knee, an injury he suffered during the Rangers' 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. It's technically his third injury of the season, as he missed the season opener recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and another seven games with a broken thumb. It's not exactly the dream season for the Rangers captain, who is set to become an UFA this summer.
• Alex Ovechkin has 26 goals in 29 games. It puts him on pace to score 71 goals this season. It would tie him for the 10th-most goals in a single season in NHL history. He has a realistic shot at his fourth Hart Trophy, which would tie him with Eddie Shore and leave him behind just Gordie Howe (6) and Wayne Gretzky (9) on the all-time list.
• With Corey Crawford out three weeks with a lower-body injury, it will be fun to see how rookie No. 3 goaltender Antti Raanta handles being thrust into Chicago's starting role with backup Nikolai Khabibulin also out. So far, so good, as Raanta is 2-0 and has stopped 56-of-60 shots.
(If you’d like to ask a question for the weekly mailbag, you can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, fire your query at me via Twitter at @DaveLozo or leave a question in the comments section for next week.)
Where do you see Ryan Miller ending up at the trade deadline?
I truly don't think there is a market for him unless a team that is a playoff contender suffers a catastrophic injury to one of its goalies. The thing about top teams that see themselves as championship contenders is that they already have their goalie. Maybe Pittsburgh wants insurance for Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Penguins have less than $1 million in cap space and could use more forward depth too. The Flyers? Goaltending hasn't been their problem so far.
Best guess while we are still in December is Miller stays with the Sabres over the rest of the season and receives a healthy pay day during the summer.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.