NHL Head Shots: Matt Cooke Proves Rule 48 Not Working, but Punishing Teams Would

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IMarch 22, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 06:  Matt Cooke #24 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is led to the penalty box by Brian Murphy #93 during the game against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on February 6, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Last season, the NHL felt forced to do something about the increase in blatant hits to the head.

After losing high-profile players such as Marc Savard and David Booth to head shot-related concussions, the NHL saw that, left unchecked, hits to the head would not only continue, but perhaps even increase.

Their response was Rule 48.

The so-called "head shot rule" states: "A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted."

Now, the first thing I thought when a read this was, "So, you mean until now there was never a rule explicitly stating that hitting players in the head was not permitted?"

No wonder players felt free to do so.

The institution of Rule 48, in and of itself, wasn't going to be enough to eliminate head shots in the NHL. However, it would at least allow the league to enforce it via suspensions and/or fines.

The thinking was, with the rule in place players would no longer take liberties with other players, and the increasing problem of hits to the head would be adequately addressed.

Individuals can judge for themselves if Rule 48 has done its job, but, as the NHL has handed out 13 suspensions, and five in the month of March alone, for a total of 48 man-games lost to date, my contention is it isn't doing much.

The personification of the impotence of Rule 48 is manifested perfectly in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke.

After all, it was Cooke's hit on Savard last season that started much of the head-shot debate in earnest.

Cooke was (famously) not suspended for what has roundly been agreed upon as the very definition of the kind of play the NHL is trying to discourage.

One would think that, with so many critical eyes trained on him, Matt Cooke would go well out of his way to stay clear of any area above the neck when hitting an opponent.

After all, Rule 48 could, for all intents and purposes be called the "Matt Cooke" or "Marc Savard" rule.

Surely, with such a rule in place, the man largely responsible for its inception would observe it.

Additionally, Matt Cooke's teammate and captain, Sidney Crosby, has been sidelined for two months with a head-shot related concussion.

Surely, he'd not dare dish out the same kind of dirty play that has put his team's best player on the shelf.


Despite a rule, a history and an injured teammate reminding him that hits to the head are a very, very bad thing, Matt Cooke decided to, quite blatantly and in full view of NHL officiating and a national TV audience, throw an elbow to the head of Rangers' defenceman Ryan McDonagh.

That Matt Cooke is largely responsible for Rule 48's existence is understood. How he can so blatantly violate it, is a bit tougher to get one's mind around.

The NHL handed out the the stiffest Rule 48-related suspension to date—10 games (the rest of the regular season) and the entire first round of the playoffs.

As Matt Cooke is a repeat offender, such a punishment is well apportioned, if not a little light considering the circumstances.

The question is, will it stop him from doing this again?

His own GM, Ray Shero, has voiced his very strong support of the NHL's decision. His coach and teammates echo Shero's disappointment in Cooke's actions, and Cooke himself has expressed an appropriate level of contrition.

But, before his elbow connected with McDonagh's head, Cooke was well aware of the illegality of such an action and was likely certain that, if caught, such an act would carry with it a suspension.

But he did it anyway.

It might well be that suspending a single player for his own actions just isn't a big enough deterrent for some, like Cooke, who continue to disrespect other players, the game and their team.

In my opinion, the Penguins are a first-class organization, but should suffer the consequences of having a low-class player continually injure, or attempt to injure, his opponents.

So, imagine this: Matt Cooke is suspended for the rest of the season and the first round of the playoffs, and so is Kris Letang.

Why Kris Letang?

Well, in the absence of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang is the Penguins' leading scorer.

The Pens could do fine without Matt Cooke in the lineup, but how well will they do without their All-Star defenceman for the rest of the season and first round of the playoffs?

Now, I understand Crosby is still out with a concussion. So, as he's not currently playing, adding his name to the suspension is not fair or logical.

But, were Crosby healthy, then as the Penguins' leading scorer, he would be the one sitting out with Cooke.

Before you get too irritated, let me explain my thinking here.

First, a drastic action like this would only be applied in the case of repeat offenders as blatant as Cooke.

An over-eager rookie who gets his elbow up on an opponent and thus gets suspended the first time for a head shot, isn't going to cost his team their leading scorer.

However, if someone like Cooke knew, before he acted, that he'd not only put himself out of the game, but Letang as well, is it likely he'd have made a different choice?

I think so.

Second, with such a possibility in place, it stands to reason that the team themselves would be well motivated to discourage their teammates for delivering hits to the head.

Hockey is a team sport, perhaps the greatest team sport in the world.  As such, a single player acting in a way that costs the team will not be tolerated and such a player would likely feel the wrath and disgust of teammates with unbearable intensity.

A hockey team is nothing if not a brotherhood. The last thing any player wants to do is turn his brothers against him. The thought of this possibility alone could be enough to clean up one's dirty play.

Is this idea drastic, and a little crazy?


But so is the idea that a rule and a threat of a suspension will stop a guy like Matt Cooke from hitting guys in the head.

Follow Matt on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MAhutter12


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