Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Matt Cooke Shows NHL GMs the Easy, Obvious Solutions to Head-Hunting

NHL general managers are meeting right now and one of the things they’re talking about is how to deal with concussions. What they know is they cannot keep losing players of the caliber of Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger. What is to be decided is:  how they are to go about protecting their players?

There are some interesting rule changes being discussed:  putting the red line back (boo), removing the trapezoid behind the goalie, and the one I like the most,  a hybrid-icing call proposed by Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’m sure that the equipment -- particularly the helmets -- can be improved, too.

But even with those changes, suspensions are the best, simplest way to reduce concussions caused by head-hunting.

The NHL can settle on some hard rules as to what constitutes head hunting starting with the most egregious and obvious examples -- throwing an elbow into another player’s head and launching oneself at another player’s head/neck area. Both of those are extremely dangerous and unnecessary actions. We have seen refs calling penalties for those movements more and more of late, and that is a good thing. But the real responsibility for cleaning up the game has to fall on the shoulders of the league offices in Toronto, not on the on-ice officials.

Here’s what the NHL doesn’t want to do:   follow the muddled model of the NFL by asking their on-ice officials to do too much.

National Football League officials have become some of the worst in professional sports. I don’t watch enough NBA to compare them to the NBA, but I can say with certainty:  both MLB umps and NHL refs are 100 times better than the NFL. That's shameful, considering that 15 or 20 years ago, I would have said the NFL guys were the best, or at least among the best.

Now they are simply atrocious. Did NFL referee just suddenly turn stinky all of a sudden one day? [Well, in the case of Ed Hoculi, I think one can argue that he’s hit his expiration date ...] But I don't think that a large group of individuals just randomly, collectively turned into a steaming pile of confused offal all of a sudden. It's a symptom of a larger systemic problem and it starts at the top.

The referees barely know the rules anymore, so onerous and byzantine has become the rulebook.

The guys on the field are being asked to do too much, to use too much personal discretion, and to hold too many ideas and directives in their heads, all while 300 pound men crash into each other dangerously around them. It's just too much. Period.

The National Hockey League should view this moment in time as an opportunity -- an opportunity to take the lead on head-injuries and officiating them. They can instruct the refs to call roughing and charging and boarding, but not over-burden them. Instead, the responsibility for issuing punishments with real teeth will stay with the league offices in Toronto. Brendan Shanahan's crew can look at all the dangerous hits on any given night and suspend players accordingly.

Here’s where I really think the NHL can get this right:  agree on a hard scale for suspensions. The important thing is not to allow personal judgment or caprice to set the tone, unlike another league we know where the punishments meted out are unpredictable, at best. One guy launches with his helmet, he gets a $15,000 fine. Another guy does it, he gets a $75,000 fine. Yet another guy does it, he’s just ‘a great player, making a great play.’ What the hell are players to make of that?

Players should know what's coming their way if they step out of line.

Throw an elbow at a guy’s head, that’s a one game suspension. Do it again, and it’s five games. Do it again, and it’s ten games. Again? Twenty games. And so on.

Launch yourself at somebody’s head? Same sliding scale.

Smash somebody’s face into the glass? Same deal.

A codified system is key to this working, so that everybody knows what is at stake with every single cheap shot.

Look no further than Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins in terms of the efficacy of the suspension.

Last year, Cookie received a 17 game suspension for running Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers into the boards. The suspension kept Cooke out for the first round of the playoffs, a series that the Penguins lost in 7 games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Do you think the Penguins could have used a player like Cooke in that series? I certainly do.

As a result of that suspension, and after the sting of missing the playoffs, Cooke transformed his game. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it. Throughout his career, he had amassed a remarkable number of penalty minutes. In fact, in seasons in which he played at least 67 games, only once did he have fewer than 82 penalty minutes. In 2009-10, he had 106 penalty minutes through 79 games played. Last year, his suspension shortened season in which he played just 67 games, he accumulated 129 penalty minutes. Good god.

He vowed to come back a changed player and he has been as good as his word this season. He’s fore-checking, back-checking, killing penalties, chipping in 12 goals and 15 assists, but has spent only 30 minutes in the penalty box. It’s remarkable. For this incredible change, Cooke should be commended.

The larger lesson to be taken from this is that if a suspension can change Matt Cooke, it can change other NHL recidivists. A codified suspension system, applied consistently and with conviction, would greatly diminish head-hunting and thus, decrease the number of concussions sustained throughout the hockey season.

Guys who currently make a living head-hunting (and you know who you are) will either change their games or lose their jobs once they become more trouble than they are worth. Adapt or die, fellas. Adapt or die.

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