All the rage in NHL circles these days seems to be about head shots, cheap shots, a lack of respect for opposing players and, of course, fighting.
It’s great that the NHL seems to always be in the headlines, but with all the negative press, can the NHL really be happy with all the extra coverage?
For the most part, the NHL is trying it’s best to be proactive, implementing new rules designed to punish players for acts of violence and careless behavior, including outlawing head shots.
Often, these types of plays result in a player being injured for a long period of time.
At the Winter Classic, we all watched in horror as the NHL’s poster boy Sidney Crosby went crashing to the ice after a questionable (yet unpunished) hit from Washington Capitals forward David Steckel.
For some, the NHL’s refusal to discipline Steckel for his actions was a slap in the face of Penguins fans, Sidney Crosby and NHL players in general.
To be fair, the NHL has long been criticized for a perceived lack of consistency when it comes to doling out suspensions, especially where head shots and dirty hits are concerned.
Whether you agree with the NHL’s decision not to suspend David Steckel, one thing is for certain: You will never make all the fans, players and teams happy regardless of the NHL’s decision.
Such is the case with the recent Zdeno Chara/Max Pacioretty incident, which saw Pacioretty emerge with a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture of the fourth cervical vertebrae.
While nobody will question the severity of the hit or subsequent injuries, an intelligent case can be made on both sides of the ledger where Chara’s actions are concerned.
On the one side, some are claiming that Chara never intentionally hit Pacioretty into the stanchion between the two benches. Therefore, without intent and without malice, Chara (who has never been suspended before this incident) should not be suspended any further than what he already received during the game (a game misconduct).
On the other hand, many observers feel that Chara was guilty of both premeditating the hit on Pacioretty and intentionally guiding Pacioretty into the stanchion.
I am already on record as saying that I feel NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy and the NHL got it right by not suspending Chara, for which I have endured both criticism and accolades for having the moxie to take an unpopular stance on the issue.
On the surface, Chara’s hit on Pacioretty looked horrific (and it was). Where I have issue is that many fans are demanding Chara be punished based on the outcome of the hit, which is not part of the NHL rulebook.
At the time of the incident, Chara was assessed a five minute major for interference and a game misconduct.
Look around on the score sheets, it’s not often that a player is assessed a major penalty on an interference call.
So, why did the refs assess Chara with said penalty?
It is my opinion that given the amount of violence and fights in the last game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins and the ensuing incident involving Chara and Pacioretty that referees Eric Furlatt and Bill McCreary wanted to jettison Zdeno Chara off the ice as soon as possible so as to avoid retribution from the Canadiens.
The game misconduct had little to do with Chara’s actions; it was all about player safety, nothing more, nothing less.
If all this leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you are not alone.
Many NHL fans have voiced their displeasure over the widespread increase in violence, bloodshed and head injuries this season, which leads some to believe that, contrary to popular belief, that the NHL is actually encouraging more violence by not doing a better job of protecting their players from themselves.
Let’s face it: The NHL is a much faster game than even 10 years ago. Rules have been changed to impede players from hooking and grabbing onto opponents, resulting in numerous injuries to defensemen who are often forced to absorb the full brunt of an opposing forward when they turn their backs to retrieve a puck behind the net or along the boards.
Some have argued that the NHL should allow defensemen to apply a “bear hug” technique, which would allow the defenseman to protect both themselves and the opposing forward from getting injured, but so far the NHL is yet to endorse the idea.
The NHL has long been criticized for not instating mandatory visors, adequate helmets and other overlooked pieces of equipment, including but not limited to mouth guards and less damaging elbow and shoulder pads.
Here is a quirky stat I came across the other day: The first testicular guard or "cup" was used in hockey in 1874. The first helmet was used in 1974. It took 100 years for the NHL and its players to realize that the brain was also important!
Given the fact it took 100 years for an NHL player to don a helmet, one wonders if the NHL shouldn’t be more forceful when it comes to instituting mandatory equipment.
Clearly, the players rarely put it upon themselves to make the decision, although they are getting better over time.
In all fairness, the NHL has been an industry leader when it comes to their research on concussions. Baseline testing, instituting new regulations on concussion injury protocol and the like have helped the NHL and its players to understand the severity of concussions.
That said, with the NHL so intent on testing and identifying concussions, you’d think they would be doing everything in their power to help players make the right decisions with regards to prevention of said injury, including taking a closer look at the M11 hockey helmet endorsed by former NHL great Mark Messier.
The M11 helmet uses a cutting edge liner system utilizing a ground-breaking impact attenuation system to more effectively manage energy transfer from direct impact—yet the NHL does not make this helmet a mandatory piece of equipment for all players.
It is this type of oversight that leaves many fans frustrated with the NHL and its players association, which, despite making all the right moves with regards to concussion research, sets its players up for failure by allowing them to take the ice with inferior equipment.
If you have been on NHL.com recently, you will have noticed that violence, head shots, big hits and (gulp) fighting has been front and centre on this Website all season long.
Could it be that the NHL is actually in favor of all the blood and gore? Could it be that the NHL has grown tired of trying to hide from its roots and has now decided to embrace the good, bad and the ugly of the violence associated with NHL hockey?
If not, why the hesitation to bring in mandatory helmets? Why was there insufficient padding on the stanchion that Max Paciorety hit? Why are there still players without visors? Why does the NHL continue to allow players to wear equipment under their jerseys that is more suitable for a medieval time warrior than a hockey player?
Why does the NHL still allow fighting to exist?
And finally, why is it every time a player gets injured as a result of another player's actions that the fans, media and players are up in arms for what many perceive to be a real lack of punishment from the NHL?
To be fair, there is a fine line when considering just how much of the hitting, fighting and violence should be eliminated from the game of hockey. The NHL is and has always been a sport firmly entrenched in tradition, one of which is playing with the threat of intimidation, injury and fear.
In the end, besides wanting the NHL to make better decisions with regards to protecting its players, most NHL fans want to see the NHL become more consistent with their disciplinary actions.
Trouble is, so many hits are up for interpretation. There is so much grey area that even the players themselves are unclear of what justifies a suspension and what is perfectly legal.
Do we want an NHL that says if player "A" injures player "B," there will be an automatic suspension? If so, how many games should said player get? Should the amount of games be contingent upon the severity of the injury or should we just have a blanket suspension of 10 games regardless of the severity?
Is 10 games too little, too much? Where should the bar be set?
Could an NHL player fake an injury? How would one prove that? How does one disprove that?
Consider this: What if a borderline NHL player were to go down at the expense of a slash or hit from (for example) Alexander Ovechkin? Sorry Alex, that’s 10 games, no questions asked?
I know one thing for sure, Washington Capital fans would be on Gary Bettman’s doorstep in a matter of seconds protesting such a suspension!
And there are a number of other questions to consider.
Would it be the NHL’s job to assess the damage or the player's team doctor?
What about concussions? Some players take as little as a day or two to recover; others take weeks, months or have their career ended by a concussion—what if a player’s career is over, what then? How many games is that worth?
For now, it appears as though the NHL is happy with the status quo. Fighting will remain, head shots, while targeted as illegal behavior, are still alive and well and questionable hits may actually be at an all-time high.
Don’t hold your breath for great change.
The reality is the NHL likes its game just the way it is (thank you very much). Change? Why change? Ratings are up, fan interest is at an all-time high (or so the NHL would have you believe), everything is just fine!
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Until next time,