Thursday, July 29, 2010

Head Hunting in Hockey? New Year, Same Old Story

From True/Slant on March 12, 2010:

Matt Cooke’s Hit to Head Is Reckless, the NHL’s Inaction Is Even More Reckless

For some strange reason, the NHL declined to punish Penguins winger Matt Cooke for his reckless high hit to Bruins center Marc Savard last Sunday.

Cooke’s hit left Savard lifeless on the ice for a long while. Savard sustained a grade 2 concussion and, though NHL teams are more secretive about injuries than the Soviets were about the positioning of their nuclear warheads, Savard had not improved significantly as of this Wednesday.

There was no penalty called on the ice. That happens. Officials miss stuff. Heck, a lot of the players said they didn’t see the hit.

But the NHL front offices did not suspend Cooke for the hit. Not even a single game. I’m a Pens fan and I like, no, I love Matt Cooke. I’m terribly biased and even I thought Cookie should have been suspended. I would have bet that a two-game suspension was coming his way. So it’s a good thing I don’t bet.

In not suspending Cooke, Colin Campbell, a senior VP with the NHL, reasoned that Cooke’s hit on Savard was eerily similar to one delivered by the Flyers Mike Richards earlier this year. At least he got that much right.

Here’s Cooke and Savard:

Here’s Richards and David Booth:

So the thinking goes that because Richards was not suspended (clearly a mistake), that Cooke should not be suspended (even bigger mistake.)

I call two-minutes for a false syllogism. Just because the NHL got it wrong the first time is no reason to get it wrong the second time. Learning from your mistakes. Pass it on.

Campbell further reasoned that in neither case was there an intent to injure. Which, is probably true to a degree. I don’t think that Cooke, or even Richards, wants to see an opponent lay lifeless on the ice, but there is a desire to hit a guy so hard he develops PTSD and never comes across the middle again. Players are always looking for an advantage. It’s in their DNA. You don’t get to the NHL without being competitive beyond description. So while players may not seek to injure, they certainly seek to intimidate.

Was Richards aiming for Brooks’ head? Was Cooke aiming for Savard’s? It’s nearly impossible to judge intent, so why even try.

The result can be judged, though. Both Cooke and Richards hit their opponents high, fast and shockingly hard. Regardless of their intention, that’s reckless. No two ways about it.

Ironically, in the wake of the Savard injury, the GM’s met to see what, if anything, should be done about hits to the head. They decided to propose a rule change to the competition committee which would, in essence, mete out tougher punishment for hits to the head. Is it just me, or am I having deja vu all over again? Don’t they say this every year and every year, nothing is done?

The rule on high hits needs to be explicit and the punishment clear, not shrouded in secrecy or subject to interpretation. And, perhaps most importantly, the rule has to be applied to all players equally, which is to say that not just the Matt Cooke’s and Mike Richards’ of the league are suspended: Alex Ovechkin or Joe Thornton or Sidney Crosby should face identical punishment to grinders.

Make the punishment clear. One hit to an unsuspecting player in the head equals a two game suspension. The second head-hunting violation warrants a 10 game suspension. Or something like that.

We’re not talking about the United States health care plan here, just a simple rule change. The NHL doesn’t need 2,700 pages, just one declarative statement: Do not go head hunting.

How hard is that?

The change needs to be made now, not in the off-season, not next year or the year after that. Now.

A few years back in a playoff game between the Rangers and the Devils, known wanker Sean Avery, in a fit of shocking wankosity (even for Avery), planted his cretin-self in front of Marty Broudeur and just waved his hand in the netminder’s face. The NHL made a by the seat of it’s pants ruling to outlaw that behavior, right then and there.

From that game forward, there was no more wanking, idiotic hand waving.

The league made a rule change right in the middle of the playoffs for crying out loud, so there is precedent to institute a new player safety rule right now. Simply tell the players, there’s a new sheriff in town and he don’t take took kindly to head shots. Starting right this second.

The longer the NHL puts this off, the more reckless hits and injuries we’ll see, and maybe as soon as Thursday when the Penguins visit the Bruins. It’ll be the Bruins’ first chance to seek vengence and hockey honor being what it is, the Bruins have to answer.

Chances are, though, that they won’t target Matt Cooke, but rather one of the Penguins stars, like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Meaning the league could lose one of its biggest draws to injury due to frontier justice.

It would all be so easy to avoid. If the league had just meted out justice, the players wouldn’t feel compelled to.

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