Matt Cooke: Where Does The NHL Go From Here?

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Matt Cooke: Where Does The NHL Go From Here?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

By now we have all seen the Matt Cooke hit on New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

The NHL responded by handing out a minimum 14-game suspension (10 regular season games followed by up to seven games in the first round of the playoffs) to Cooke for what is widely regarded as one of the ugliest hits in all of hockey—the head shot.

Cooke intentionally caught McDonagh in the head with an elbow. Try as he might to excuse his actions or suggest that the incident was an accident, the video shows Cooke intentionally targeted McDonagh’s head.

Cooke’s undisciplined actions could have cost McDonagh his career or worse yet, his mobility or even his life.

While the suspension seems to be to the liking of many hockey fans, players and management types, there are still questions as to why it took so long for the NHL to suspend a player with Cooke’s reputation?

God knows everyone within NHL circles knew that it was only a matter of time before Cooke did “this” to somebody. The question is, if we all knew Cooke was/is a ticking time bomb, why was he afforded the opportunity to continue his NHL career?

Where do I get off calling out Cooke and suggest that the NHL should have made an example out of him much earlier than yesterday?

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

For those of you that do not remember, Cooke was responsible for the NHL’s late-season amendment to the rule book when, after nearly decapitating Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard, Cooke went unpunished because there were no specific rules regarding the head shot, and there have been several very questionable incidents involving Cooke since.

Known to those in NHL circles as Rule 48, the institution of said rule was brought about to help serve notice to NHL players that head shots would no longer be tolerated and that heavy suspensions would be levied should an NHL player be in violation of said rule.

Rule 48 stipulates that:

An illegal check to the head shall be identified asa lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact.”

The rule goes on to further explain that:

“For a violation of this rule, a major penalty shall be assessed. An automatic game misconduct penalty shall be assessed whenever a major penalty is assessed under this rule.

"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 and that any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconducts under this rule, in either regular League or playoff games, shall be suspended automatically for the next game his team plays. For each subsequent game misconduct penalty the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion.”

The whole idea of rule 48 was to serve notice that head shots would not be tolerated and to help protect the players from an increasing number of dangerous players who no longer seem to respect their opponents’ safety and well being.

Long, arduous debates have taken place in NHL circles, within the media and online right here on the Bleacher Report with many journalists, bloggers and fans venting their concern and displeasure over a perceived lack of enforcement of rule 48 by NHL senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell and his team of disciplinarians.

Nobody received more direct venom from NHL fans than NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy when he reviewed the controversial Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty in which Chara appeared to have pushed Pacioretty’s head into a stanchion, resulting in what many believe to be one of the worst concussions in NHL history and a severely damaged vertebra.

Amongst great criticism, Murphy held firm to his assessment that no supplementary discipline was warranted to Chara, clearing Montreal’s new public enemy No. 1 to play without prejudice.

Montreal and NHL fans alike protested en mass, suggesting that the NHL had completely missed the boat on a huge opportunity to serve notice that head shots and unwarranted violence would not be tolerated by the NHL.

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Many felt that, while Chara may or may not have intentionally thrust Pacioretty into the stanchion, that a long-term suspension was in order.

Police reports were filed, protesters showed up outside the Bell Center and still no further suspension or discipline was thrust upon Chara.

Murphy released the following statement on the Chara hit:

"I conducted a hearing with Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara with respect to the major penalty for interference and game misconduct that he was assessed at 19:44 of the second period for a hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens.

"After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly—with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards.

"I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, that Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous.

"This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface. In reviewing this play, I also took into consideration that Chara has not been involved in a supplemental discipline incident during his 13-year NHL career."

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Many NHL fans pointed out that, regardless of Chara’s intent, that the outcome of the hit should have justified a significant suspension.

The NHL has never been in the habit of handing out suspensions based solely on the outcome of a player’s actions. That said, the NHL has levied large suspensions based on the optics of the infraction and severity of the rule violation.

Nobody needs to be reminded of Todd Bertuzzi’s (who was a member of the Vancouver Canucks at the time) assault of former Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore.

The NHL responded to arguably the worst hit in NHL history by suspending Bertuzzi for what was left of the 2003-2004 NHL season (13 games) and what amounted to seven additional playoff games.

At the time, Bertuzzi’s suspension was listed as indefinite, but he was allowed to return to action after the NHL resumed after a lengthy labor dispute which saw the NHL and its players sit out the 2004-05 season.

Many believe that this is where the NHL went wrong. Clearly there had never been a more dangerous hit in NHL history (although Marty McSorley’s tomahawk chop to the head of Vancouver Canuck’s forward Donald Brashear’s head in March 2000 came very close).

McSorley received a 23-game suspension for his actions, which still stands as the third longest suspension in NHL history behind a pair of Chris Simon suspensions which saw the former Washington Capital receive a 25-game suspension for slashing former New York Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg’s face and his infamous “stomping” on the leg of former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jarkko Ruutu for which he received a 30-game suspension.

Harry How/Getty Images

There have been plenty of other moments of indiscretion from NHL players over the years (Dale Hunter’s hit on former New York Islander forward Pierre Turgeron comes to mind), but few of them were as horrific to watch as Matt Cooke’s hit on Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard, which some NHL fans thought may have left the Bruins star dead on the ice where he lay unconscious for what seemed like an eternity…but I digress.

The point is, the NHL has had plenty of time to deal with head shots. The NHL has been the subject of many criticisms from the players, fans, ownership and management over what many have thought to be a lack of judgment from the NHL where doling out suspensions is concerned and a real lack of accountability where both the players and NHL teams are concerned.

Former NHL great and current co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins Mario Lemieux recently suggested that NHL teams be held more accountable for their players’ actions.

In a letter addressed to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Lemieux suggested that NHL teams and coaches be made to pay huge fines of up to $1 million when a player is suspended for an extended period of time.

While many in NHL circles would like to see Lemieux’s suggestion made law, there are those that believe that it still does not go far enough.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The NHL’s recent suspension of Matt Cooke was a step in the right direction, but unless the NHL is prepared to continually assess a severe suspension to any player found to be in violation of rule 48 or putting another player’s life at risk it will be all for not.

While there is no question that the fans and players both want to see offenders to be prosecuted to the fullest, an argument could be made that NHL teams should also face heavy fines.

Further, if fines are not enough to help sway NHL from employing these offenders (especially the repeat offenders like Cooke), perhaps the NHL could hit organizations where it really hurts by making all fines applicable to a team's salary cap?

The salary cap ramifications would be impossible to overcome for some teams as it may force them to trade a player that they deem integral to their success due to the fines incurred due to the offender’s poor choices on the ice.

For example, had Lemieux’s suggestion been in place since the beginning of the 2010-11 season the Penguins (ironically) would have been forced to pay upwards of $850,000 in fines.

Had those fines resulted in a salary cap hit of equal value the Penguins would have been in big trouble cap-wise and may have been unable to facilitate the trade deadline deals Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero pulled off  which subsequently bolstered the clubs playoff chances and success.

Would you like to see the NHL:

Submit Vote vote to see results

You want to put an end to head shots and questionable violence? Blanket the accountability so that everyone works together to eradicate such behavior.

For the NHL and the strangely silent NHLPA, there is no more time to drag their collective feet. Huge fines must be levied, huge suspensions must be handed out, equipment changes (click here to get some of my insight on that issue) must be made and a sense of responsibility and respect must resonate in the NHL.

Failure to take the necessary steps to ensure player safety and respect for others will result in an NHL player leaving the ice in a casket before long. If that should happen the NHL, its players and the NHLPA will have nobody to blame but themselves.

Who exactly are we protecting by not enforcing rule 48 more severely? Who exactly are we protecting by not making NHL teams more accountable for their players’ actions?

Collectively and without prejudice, it’s about time that the NHL, its players and the NHLPA took back the game that should be the envy of all sport.

The NHL does not need violence and bloodshed to capture today’s sports audience, what it needs is to bring back an element of respect to a game that is going down the toilet.

Don’t wait to make changes like the NHL did with helmets (it took 100 years for them to be made mandatory). Don’t wait for a player to die on the ice, do something that will serve notice that this type of behavior will not and cannot be tolerated.

Leave the bloodshed to the UFC (not that I have an issue with that!) and for once in your lives do the right thing to protect everyone involved and help grow the game into what it should already be—the greatest sport on earth.

Until next time,

Peace!

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