Last week the image and respectability of the NHL got a big black eye, courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke. Now thanks to judgement errors by both Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin and Tampa Bay Lightning goon Steve Downie, the league will get another black eye and a kick in the groin.
First let me highlight that I am a Capitals fan and big supporter of Alex Ovechkin. Now that you know that, I have to come out and say that his antics have to stop. Should Ovechkin be suspended for his most recent "shove" on Chicago's Brian Campbell? No, I do not believe (given the outcome of the Matt Cooke circus) that the league can suspend Alex Ovechkin for that contact. Though, that does not make his actions right or defensible as a captain of an NHL team.
It is not Ovechkin's, Cooke's, or Downie's fault that the league brass has been so inconsistent with punishment and precedent. At this point I would not be surprised by any outcome for these recent incidents. Matt Cooke got nothing, not even a warning. He had to call the league office directly to have them outline what a clean hit even is. Ovechkin will probably get banned three games, just because the league implies a double-standard and no policy of consistency.
These incidents and issues are taking the league down a difficult path, and making the management of the NHL hard to defend. This trend of injuries, reckless play, and lack of punishment must stop. The future of the NHL, it's players, and the good name of the game depends on the players finding a way to battle. while still respecting each other. It also depends on the league finding a consistent way to dispense discipline and deter future predatory actions.
There are few precedents on repeat offenders, and certainly little enforcement of the rule book. Interpretations are wide-ranging and often the correct actions are unclear, and avoided by the NHL's top brass. The mandate needs to come from the league on down to the players. You must respect your fellow players. Regardless of your intent on the play, if the puck is gone (or just left the opposing player), pull up, ease back, or avoid the contact.
Matt Cooke could have stepped out of the hitting lane on Marc Savard, or he could have turned his body to make a glancing blow shoulder-to-shoulder, instead of rearing his arm/elbow directly up at a prone Savard's head.
Alex Ovechkin could have slowed down, cut to his left, or kept his paws off Brian Campbell. He knew how close he was to the end boards, and he was aware enough to know that Campbell was already on his way down after over-extending himself to play the puck. Alex Ovechkin is an incredible skater and he chose to "finish" the play, rather than turn and pursue the puck.
Ovechkin's intent may have been a hockey play, but the outcome was an injury. Matt Cooke may have been within the current rule structure and "finished" his check on a hockey play, but the outcome was gruesome and unnecessary. This comes down to players making terrible decisions. The outcome of those plays is a terrible black mark on the the league.
Sadly, you don't have to look too hard to find similar incidents. It is happening every night. Top-level and role players are committing them, and all levels of players are getting injured. I am not a Sidney Crosby fan, but a guy like Steve Downie intentionally trying to hurt Crosby with a slew-foot or leg whip is disgusting.
This is certainly not hockey. Hockey is a physical game, a graceful game, and contact sport. It is not a mixed-martial arts exhibition of kneeing, elbowing, and thirst for blood. The last thing that NHL fans want to see are injuries and poor decisions changing the outcome of games. Wins and losses should be decided by skill, luck, sportsmanship, and respect for the game.
I will reiterate that this issue does not come down to Ovechkin vs. Crosby (one is a dirty player, the other is a soft player). This is not another fringe players hurting star players discussion. On other blogs and forums we can debate who is the better player or why guys do what they do. My intent here and now is a "future of the game itself" discussion.
The NHL wants mass appeal and major media TV coverage. The NHL wants to expand its fanbase, its revenues, and make hockey for everybody. The only way to do it is to promote respect for the game, respect for the men on the ice, and deliver a product that exhibits the speed, skill, and strength of hockey. It does not matter if you are a star or a role player, it is time to love the game and make decisions that draw people to the sport, not push them away.