We are now two weeks into a fresh, new NHL season and it appears that some things never change. On Wednesday 07 October, the Toronto Maple Leafs took on the Montréal Canadiens in the season opener for both teams. Early in the first period, Leo Komarov shoved P.K. Subban from behind into the boards. The hit itself was nasty, but the fact that Subban did not turn into the hit, the fact that he was a dangerous distance from the boards and the fact that the puck had left the area combine to make it an inexcusable act. Thankfully, Subban got up and finished the game. Komarov, for his transgression, got nothing more than 2 minutes for Boarding. I am constantly puzzled as to why hits like Komarov’s receive little to no discipline on the ice, and rarely, if ever, face punishment off it. Though Komarov’s hit was not outright predatory, it was the latest in a long line of illegal plays that the NHL should be, via strict disciplinary practice, eradicating from the game forever.
Admittedly, the league has made some progress in cracking down on its most predatory players. With Raffi Torres being handed a 41-game suspension – and deservedly so – for an illegal check thrown in the preseason, I was cautiously optimistic that the league had turned a corner. After what went on in last year’s playoffs, I felt that change could not come fast enough. In the first round alone, there were enough dangerous plays to turn even the most conservative of hockey people cynical. Lubomir Visnovsky gets run over by Tom Wilson on a play where the puck was long gone and where the head was deliberately targeted. No supplementary discipline. John Tavares gets crushed from behind by Alexander Ovechkin (before setting up a goal, yes, I know). No supplementary discipline. Ovechkin obliterated Thomas Hickey in a very similar fashion later on in that series. No supplementary discipline. Sidney Crosby, of all people, was the victim of a drive-by headshot from the Rangers’ Carl Hagelin. No supplementary discipline, even with Crosby’s history of concussions, not to mention the fact that, you know, he is the best player in the world. Now let’s go back to 2011 when a young, up-and-coming goaltender by the name of James Reimer was clipped in the head by Brian Gionta of the Canadiens. No supplementary discipline. Oh, and, by the way: how on EARTH was Dustin Brown not penalised, let alone suspended for this hit earlier this year?!
There is a popular line recited ad nauseam regarding this issue: “Things aren’t going to change until a real superstar gets hurt”. Well, lest we forget, earlier in 2011, Sidney Crosby received the first of his serious head injuries courtesy of David Steckel in the Winter Classic. Any guesses as to what happened? No supplementary discipline. Seeing a pattern here?
NHL discipline should be applied without regard to either players’ stature within the game, but if you can’t, at the very least, protect your most valuable assets, then something is seriously wrong with your business model. And yes, I get that many of the above examples occurred in the playoffs. But the hits are still just as hard in April as they are in September. I love Ovechkin, I really do. He is a guy who is electric to watch and really seems to have fun out there. So I hate to single him out as an example. But his combination of exuberant power hockey and blinding speed, has, multiple times, led him over the edge, resulting in suspensions of 2, 2 and 3 games. Given this history, it boggles the mind how the NHL did not throw at least a couple of games at him last April. One could even make a case for a half-dozen game. It should have been even more but, due to the NHL’s ridiculous double standard of officiating and discipline that is evident each Spring – on account of the playoffs, I’d better not get greedy. If the Caps were to have lost their best player for any amount of time, how eager would other players around the league be to pull the same type of thing? Instead, nothing happened and the hazardous play continues to this day.
Joe Torre, the legendary baseball figure, hit the nail on the head when discussing his decision to suspend Chase Utley for an illegal slide during the MLB playoffs. He talks about wanting to “keep…players on the field”. This should be the ultimate goal of any professional sports league. Teams and fans alike invest a lot of time and money in players and, in the words of Harold Reynolds (who can be heard later in the above clip), “you want [that] protected”. Aside from teams and fans, players bank on themselves, too. These are individuals who have spent most of their childhood and adolescence practising a sport, and have but a few short years in adulthood to make their money. Injuries can seriously snarl up these plans. Let’s look at the star players that have left the league recently due to head injuries alone: Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, Paul Kariya, Marc Savard, Chris Pronger… Need I go on? Fans go to sporting events to see stars play, not to see them carted off the ice on stretchers. And if the NHL can’t even protect their stars, let alone their journeymen, then its future as a league looks bleak.
The NHL’s inaction on increasing and enforcing discipline has left a trail of agony and heartbreak far beyond the ice surface. Over the years, countless players have either been diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome or have succumbed to its effects. Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador are three players whose tragic deaths have been linked to concussions. There are suspicions that the deaths of other players, including Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, are also connected to head injuries. The NHL is currently fighting legal action which alleges the league was aware of the perils of head trauma and did little to address it. In some situations, they allegedly made things even worse. Check out the first couple pages of this court document from February and tell me it doesn’t give you chills. The NHL even tried to fight the lawsuit at its source, saying it was too costly to pull and compile all of the applicable medical records.
The NHL needs to change, and needs to change now in order to stop the bleeding and make the game what it can and should be: a fast, hard, competitive sport that people can watch and make a living playing without fear of someone’s brain getting smacked around. Hockey will always be a tough sport. But it can be tough without being inherently dangerous. The NHL needs to realise that its actions – or inaction – trickle down to leagues of all levels. By all accounts, minor hockey is haemorrhaging players. There are a few other factors at play, but one major contributor is player safety; parents don’t want their kids’ brains to be scrambled before they graduate high school. This development is, obviously, going to be severely detrimental to the league, if not tomorrow, then 10, 15, 20 years down the road.
The National Hockey League has a real opportunity here to stand out among its peers. Major League Baseball and the National Football League, who have both struggled with injury concerns of their own, are notoriously slow-acting in these regards. All that would be necessary is for the rules of the league to be enforced at all times and, when necessary, tweaked. For instance, why not make Boarding and Charging calls automatic 5-minute majors? Why not judge plays not on the health of the recipient, but on the merits – or lack thereof – of the play itself? Why not make such suspensions 5 games for a first offence? Let’s make sure the games are decided by the presence of players, not the absence of them.
The NHL should also, without reservation, compensate the poor souls who devoted their life to this game, only to emerge battered, bruised and concussed. Some, tragically, didn’t emerge at all. How refreshing would it be to see the league come out and say, “We screwed up. We were wrong and we want to make it right.” Put plainly, the league needs to take responsibility. The NHL can deny, deny, deny all it wants. But anyone with even a modicum of common sense must realise that the NHL knew what was going on. It is up to the courts now. Let’s hope they do the right thing, both for the individuals involved and for the game as a whole. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
So what did Komarov deserve? A 5-minute major for Boarding and a Game Misconduct, in my opinion. A 2 or 3-game suspension would not have been out of line, either. But what does the NHL deserve? You tell me; this league makes Raffi Torres look like a saint.