Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Matt Cooke Out. For a Long, Long Time

After Matt Cooke stupidly threw his elbow at the head of Rangers Ryan McDonagh on Sunday, the NHL wisely suspended him for the rest of the regular season (10 games), plus the first round of the playoffs.

The sad thing is that Cookie doesn't have to play like that. He's got enough game that he doesn't need to be head-hunting, throwing dangerous cheap shots and putting his team behind the eight-ball. It's frustrating to see and, frankly, kinda embarrassing for Pens fans. He vows to come back a smarter player and I hope that he does. Come back smarter, that is.

Ironically, this is the kind of 'get tough on crime punishment' Penguins owner Mario the Magnificent has been calling for since, well since his playing days.

But does it mean a permanent sea change in the way the NHL is officiated on ice and the kinds of reprimands we will see coming out of HQ in Toronto?

After the GM's meetings last week, the NHL said that they would not put an out-right ban on all head-shots; but rather they would simply begin strictly enforcing the rules that already exist pertaining to player safety and unnecessarily dangerous hits. [It's pretty much what the NFL said after one Sunday that saw four players concussed into stupors in a matter of hours.]

Per Shelly Anderson at the PG, some GM's have no interest in changing the game at all,
"'I don't think it's realistic,' he said [NHL VP Brendan Shanahan]. 'I think defenders defend standing up and forwards attack bent over.

'There are other things we can do first. It's healthy that every few years we have to re-evaluate the game and make tweaks and adjustments. The game will never stop evolving.'

[NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman said the lack of support for penalizing all head shots stems to some extent from data the GMs received Monday that show most concussions this season are not from head shots, and that 44 percent are the result of legal hits."
[I call shenanigans. I just love when people toss out hard percentages. I want to see the data on this 44% that Bettman referred to. Maybe he's right, but I get the feeling he pulled that number out of thin air.]

It is true that the NHL can call games much tighter, that rules already exist on the books which would protect players more, which on-ice officials eschew calling. Heck, when was the last time you watched a game and they actually sent somebody to the box for charging? They could call that twice per game on Ovie. They turn a blind eye to a whole crapton of cross-checks that occur and almost never call obstruction or interference. They have started calling boarding more which is great. And I also understand that hockey is fast, so maybe the on-ice zebras just can't see everything.

Which is where Colin Campbell comes in. If the officials miss something in live action (easy enough to do), he can issue fines and suspensions from his NHL lair in Toronto to address egregious, unnecessary and dangerous shots. His shot across Cooke's bow would seem to be the opening salvo.

But ... I've been led down the garden path by the NHL before. They will tire of policing the game like this, because the NHL does this from time to time. It's a dance they do every couple of years. "We're going to open the game up," they say, and the fans are happy, the sun shines and skill players flourish. Then over the course of a season (or two or three), without noticing it, they just slide back to the old clutch and grab tactics.

Eventually, the NHL again says, "Oh, yes, we're going to start calling obstruction and interference" and again there is much rejoicing everywhere. Then they revert back. The cycle repeats. Over and over again.

So I worry that they will tire of this new, more enlightened thinking on cheap shots, head-hunting and general goonery, and revert to their old, comfortable, well-worn neanderthal thinking.

But the cost is too great. This change from the league itself has to be permanent because if the league doesn't police this stuff, then the players and coaches do. You just know that one of the Canadiens is going to take a run at Zdeno Chara the next time the Habs and B's meet, right? I mean, I'd make a large bet on that eventuality.

It is precisely because of those types of situations that NHL has to be the Sheriff. It has to police head-hunting and other forms of general goonery, so that the players and coaches, many of whom live with their heads in the dark ages, won't mete out justice themselves.

There's a new Sheriff in town. I only hope he sticks around this time.

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