By Kiley Fischer
After an influx of head-shots in the National Hockey League (NHL) in recent seasons, the league implemented Rule 48 this past offseason to better protect their players. The rule, which went into effect this season, reads:
“48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
Under the new rule, the NHL has handed down fourteen suspensions this season – up from eight last season. However, concussions in the league have doubled. It seems as though supplemental discipline has been anything but effective.
Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke was suspended for four games after a hit to Columbus’ Fedor Tyutin. Tyutin saw Cooke coming and turned his back to him, but Cooke was still suspended. Yes, as a Penguins fan I was annoyed. However, it was a “blindside” hit whether Tyutin turned his back or not.
But wait. Washington’s David Steckel knocked a shoulder into the side of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby’s head and was not even assessed a penalty during the game. Crosby appeared unharmed afterward and played the next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman slammed Crosby’s head into the glass at the Consol Energy Center. Crosby hasn’t played since January 5 with a concussion. However, the league did not penalize Hedman.
Then came the melee on Long Island. Islanders Trevor Gillies and Matt Martin and Penguin Eric Godard were suspended for their parts in the event. The league slapped Godard with ten games, Gillies with nine, and Martin received four. From those numbers, it would appear Godard had committed the most egregious crime, yes?
No. Godard left the bench to protect his goaltender, Brent Johnson, from an attack by Michael Haley. However, rule 70.1 – leaving the bench – is the only rule in the NHL rulebook that clearly states a minimum suspension for a penalty.
Gillies bashed his elbow into Eric Tangradi’s face. With Tangradi on the ground, Gillies continued to punch his head before officials pulled Gillies off. Gillies then stood above Tangradi from the runway and taunted him while Tangradi was attended to by a Penguins trainer.
The nine game suspension was immediately followed up by a ten game suspension for another head-shot to Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck. But yes, these suspensions are doing their job.
Then comes the question of intent. Did the player mean to hurt someone?
According to Boston Bruins captain – and 6’9” behemoth – Zdeno Chara, no. Chara never meant to end Max Pacioretty’s season with a hit that leveled Pacioretty into the dividing glass between the Boston and Montreal benches. Pacioretty, 22, suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in the hit. If it does not heal perfectly, he might never play hockey again.
Chara said, “I know deep down I didn’t do it intentionally. I said it before, it’s not my style. I never try to hurt anybody. I play physical, I play hard, but that’s not what I intended to do.”
But the problem here is a reckless, dangerous hit. Intentional or not, Pacioretty’s career is in danger. Chara was assessed a game misconduct as well as an interference major. The NHL, however, did not see fit to any supplemental discipline for Chara; no fines, no suspension.
An eerily similar hit occurred only three days later in Columbus as the Kings visited the Blue Jackets. R.J. Umberger checked Kings forwards Drew Doughty into the glass near the Jackets bench. Doughty was unharmed, but the fact remains that the hit could have gone horrifically wrong.
The NHL needs to better protect their players. Rule 48 is a great start, but the lack of supplemental discipline for hits because of the lack of intent is a startling trend.
What if more hits like this occur because “he didn’t get in trouble”? Pacioretty even said, “I’m not mad for myself, I’m mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it’s okay — they won’t be suspended — then other players will get hurt like I got hurt …”
What if youth hockey players start thinking, “Well the pros can do it, why can’t I?” This isn’t a problem for the NHL alone – it’s a problem for hockey as a whole and it needs to end.
Perhaps minimum suspensions could help the cause. Sitting a player down and saying, “You automatically have a two game suspension and your hearing could bring you a few more.”
The general managers are currently involved in meetings discussing these problems. Penguins’ owner Mario Lemieux pitched an idea to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman regarding team fines for repeat offenders (noting that the Penguins would have been fined $600,000 this season for suspensions.) The managers have suggested tighter boarding and charging calls to enforce safety and reckless hits.
Regardless of the final decisions, the NHL must make a change. Hits and fights will always be a part of hockey. They make hockey…well…hockey. But the reckless hits and lack of accountability put on the players needs to end for the sake of the players and the sport.