One of the single greatest assets about the game of hockey, to me, is it's unparalleled traditions and history.
The history of the game and the purity of its traditions give the game a wonderful sheen of wonder and mystery despite how hockey has evolved.
Other sports somehow fail in this aspect, and they lose something in translation as it were, when it comes to the evolution aspect. The NHL has done a wonderful job of evolving the game and keeping tradition and history intact.
Many changes have undergone the game: the crease changes, the shootout, eliminating the red line, the "Brodeur" rule and overtime. Some purists may disagree, but the game has evolved in a manner that is consistent with the age and times we live in.
The changes, in the "instant gratification" age that we live in, have not changed the core of the game, thankfully.
As eras pass for the respective sports, newer generations will become more and more acclimated to the changes. It goes without saying that a casual fan of the NHL now could very well find the game from another era different, alien somehow.
And yet with those changes, the casual fan can fall back on the fact that in the end, the game of hockey is still as fascinating back then as it is in the fan's era.
Where many other sports have unduly made wholesale changes to the game and it's players, the NHL has, for the most part, avoided such mistakes.
Of course, there is no way to quantify these changes across sports as the rules and players simply do not provide an equal field for comparison.
One area in which all sports have taken steps in correcting is the concussion or "blows to the head" part of the game. As physical as the game of hockey or the NFL is, these steps are only logical progressions in evolutionary part of the discussion.
As well-deserved and well-intended these measures are, however, questions can arise from the execution of these rules intended to protect. When does the intention to protect and preserve player health harm the game more than it will help?
The answer is when the rule is improperly carried out or executed.
The NHL's newly appointed "blindside hit" rule, or Rule 48.1 for those scoring at home, has had a dubious beginning to life thus far.
At the beginning of the year, the League's Hockey Operations Department would send a video to all NHL club coaches and players explaining new rule changes for the upcoming 2010-11 regular season.
The Board of Governors, General Managers and the Competition Committee unanimously agreed that "a lateral or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted."
Following is the verbage for Rule 48 as it relates to the regular season
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head—A lateral or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted.
48.2 Minor Penalty—There is no provision for a minor penalty for this rule.
48.3 Major Penalty—For a violation of this rule, a major penalty shall be assessed (see 48.4).
48.4 Game Misconduct—An automatic game misconduct penalty shall be assessed whenever a major penalty is assessed under this rule.
48.5 Match Penalty—The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head.
First off, let me begin by stating that I am in no way against the rule or it's intention. This rule is needed in the NHL to protect the players, the game and to protect the stars that hockey so desperately needs to market.
Having said that, however, this is still a physical sport, and one that demands the highest level of talent and determination. It's physicality and the raw aspects of the game provides the perfect backdrop against hockey's sportsmanship and respect.
This isn't a trivial rule or one that has been taken to the extreme much like the NFL's quarterback protection rules.
But in the overall picture of the rule and how it's played out thus far, the NHL has not been very successful.
On Friday, Oct. 15, the Pittsburgh Penguins would host the New York Islanders in an early season matchup that the Penguins won 3-2. At 07:48 of the second period, Islander forward Blake Comeau would enter the Penguins' zone with his head down.
Penguin defender Kris Letang would skate in and deliver a solid shoulder-to-shoulder hit, knocking Comeau to the ice. Comeau's helmet would be sent flying on the play and Letang would be assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct.
"Everyone is going to look at the hit...It's a play that I need to step up, otherwise he's going to be by himself in the slot with a great scoring chance, so I am stepping up for the puck and hit him on the shoulder," Letang said.
The referees made this call because they felt the blow was a blindside hit and Letang had clearly made contact to Comeau's head.
The Penguins were up 2-0 at that point, and were now faced with losing a key defenceman and a five-minute major. The Islanders would score during the power play, and add the tying tally just as the penalty expired.
The Jumbotron would show otherwise, as it clearly showed a shoulder-to-shoulder hit. The NHL would later rescind the penalty after review.
What in the name of Scott Stevens is going on here?
On Nov. 4, the San Jose Sharks traveled to St. Louis to take on the Blues. At 05:29 of the second period, Joe Thornton finished serving his boarding minor and stepped on the ice.
David Perron skated through the neutral zone and had his head turned back and away as Thornton delivered the hit.
"I felt like I established myself on the ice," Thornton said. "I just braced myself for the hit. He just ran into me, to be honest with you."
Thornton was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct on the play. Perron would get back up to score the second goal shortly thereafter.
Whether or not you, as a fan, feel either of these penalties are right or wrong, the NHL needs to remove the "human" calculation part of the decision making.
The NHL and the speeds the players travel at make it a very slippery slope when asking referees to distinguish the levels of punishment. It becomes a landslide type of slope when there's nothing behind the referees to confirm their decision making.
The NFL asks its players to change their "strike zone" or where they deliver the hit. This simply does not translate to hockey; going lower to deliver the hit is just not the same dynamic and could actually result in increased injuries.
Where or when does the major or misconduct become applicable? When or where does it become less of a protection issue and more a change in the game itself?
While it may slow down the game, perhaps a review may be in order to sort out the proper penalty and keep the spirit of the game intact. As it is now, the referees have enough on their plate given the game and the speeds at which it moves.
The NHL needs to provide a more accurate system in which these punishments are administered, for its players, for its fans, but above all for the game.
NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell, who was in transit, did not take part in the hearing Friday. Mike Murphy, the NHL's vice president of hockey operations, conducted the hearing and decided on the suspension.
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