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How to put an end to headhunting in the NHL

The league remains dangerously ambiguous about the role of violence in hockey


 
How to put an end to headhunting in the NHL

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL playoffs have just begun. But headhunting season is well under way.

In the dying seconds of his first game against the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber grabbed Red Wing star Henrik Zetterberg by the scruff of the neck and smashed his face into the glass, pro-wrestler style.

In an entirely out-of-control game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, Penguin James Neal left his feet to flatten Sean Couturier with a high check. The Flyers rookie was caught entirely defenceless, mainly because he didn’t have the puck at the time. As no penalty was called, Neal later delivered a flying elbow to the head of Philadelphia’s best player, Claude Giroux. In the same game, Penguin Arron Asham crosschecked Brayden Schenn in the throat.

Then, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was levelled in the corner by a devastating elbow to the head from Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers. Earlier in the same game, Senator tough guy Matt Carkner deliberately hunted down Brian Boyle and rained punches at his head. Boyle, to his credit, refused to fight back.

Hagelin has been suspended three games for his infraction. Carkner got one game. Weber received a $2,500 fine. At press time, Neal and Asham were still waiting to hear their fates. The NHL has already handed out as many suspensions in the 2012 playoffs as in last year’s entire Stanley Cup run.

NHL playoffs once meant a particular brand of hockey defined by contained aggression. It was tough, exciting hockey, but players generally avoided fighting and other outrageous acts of violence because of the consequences—a single stupid penalty can change the outcome of a game and decide a series. Not so this year. The 2012 playoffs have been marked by what appears to be a universal commitment to stupidity, mostly aimed at opponents’ heads.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This season began with extraordinary attention paid to concussions and their long-term consequences. And Brendan Shanahan, newly appointed as the NHL’s senior vice-president in charge of player safety and hockey operations, promised greater transparency and coherence when handing out punishments. To his credit, Shanahan now releases a video judgment with each suspension.

But regardless of Shanahan’s attempts at transparency, the NHL remains dangerously ambiguous about the role of violence in hockey. Case in point, Shanahan has been explicit in recent rulings that the extent of the injury determines the extent of the punishment. Weber’s laughably inconsequential fine was justified by the fact Zetterberg suffered no significant injury (other than a cracked helmet). Hagelin, on the other hand, got a hefty three games because he gave Alfredsson a concussion. So it’s not the on-ice act that’s being considered as much as the post-game medical report; shots to the head are dealt with sternly only when they result in a serious injury. But this ignores the crucial element of intent. If the goal is to eliminate all head shots, consistency demands that all deliberate head shots be dealt with equally, regardless of the outcome.

There is more at stake than the credibility of league officials. The game itself is at a crossroads. Fans have long debated the merits of ritualized fighting in hockey, but no one can possibly defend a game that allows players to roam the ice attempting to concuss each other on the fly. If the NHL fails to take decisive action to put an end to head shots, it will do long-term damage to the game as we know it, both as a commercial and recreational pursuit.

For a different approach, consider the reaction of the National Football League when it was revealed the New Orleans Saints coaching staff was encouraging players to injure opponents via a bounty system. Cash rewards could be earned for particular outcomes, such as if an opposing player required a cart to leave the field. While the actual number of injuries caused by this scheme was never firmly established, the league took action based on intent. And the action was severe.

Sean Payton, head coach of the Saints, has been suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season. The defensive coordinator and architect of the bounty program, Gregg Williams, has been suspended indefinitely. The general manager and another coach were also handed major penalties. Sanctions of this sort are unprecedented. And as a result, players can rest assured there will never be another headhunting bounty program in the NFL.

Now there’s no evidence NHL coaches are directly promoting the random acts of on-ice violence currently masquerading as playoff hockey. Rather, the teachable moment is that the NFL decided a particular type of behaviour was detrimental to its game, and took firm and incontrovertible action to eradicate it.

If Shanahan wishes to regain control over how hockey is being played in the 2012 playoffs, he needs to make a similarly clear and unequivocal statement that deliberate shots to the head will no longer be tolerated. Suspensions that last the entire playoffs would be a good place to start.


 

How to put an end to headhunting in the NHL

  1. The difference between the NFL’s penalties levied on the Saints and the same (potentially) being done in the NHL is that Roger Goodell has the support of his owners and the power to act.

    Gary Bettman seems content to sit idly by and allow the violence to continue with no care of punishment even fitting crime.

    Shanahan, for his part, was already reeled in by owners and GM’s who thought his early-season suspensions were too harsh.  He doesn’t have the mandate, or the power, to unilaterally affect the sea change you suggest.

     

  2. I’m obliged as a Senators fan to take issue with the contention that Boyle’s refusal to fight the smaller Carkner is somehow ‘to his credit’.

    Even if you don’t buy the argument that fighting is an outlet that actually prevents other nastiness, or the related argument that knowing you will have to ‘answer the bell’ for your own conduct is a means by which hockey players police themselves – you should at least note that Carkner’s actions were a direct response to Boyle punching the MUCH smaller Erik Karlsson in the face repeatedly in the previous match (Boyle is 7 inches taller and almost 80 pounds heavier than Karlsson).

  3. I am so sick of all this.

    I want to see a tough physical game of hockey as much as the next guy, but when players start trying to cause permanent injury to others in the obvious hopes of taking them out of the playoffs, I seriously start to wonder where the hockey is at.

    Hard tactical hits to control the game is central to the sport of course, but I want to see skilled play as well and cheap shots don’t fit in there.

    I have no confidence in the league anymore. Sportsmanship is out the window with these jokers.

    • Does this also parallel the path of politics?

      I believe it does.

  4. It’s very simple: make the penalty for an illegal hit a one-game suspension, plus a further suspension until the injured player returns to play. If there is no injury, well, it’s just a one game suspension. If it’s a career-ending hit, like that thug Bertuzzi did on Moore, then it ends the thug’s NHL career too.

    • Touché.

      Bertuzzi should have been sent in end-of-career immediately! There are others folowing him & similar moves should have been made.

      “I went a fight & a hockey game broke out”, is far from being humourous!

  5. Yet another depressing series of reasons why we no longer watch and our sons don’t play.

  6. Another chess player writes a column on hockey.

    • So you LIKE watching good players sidelined for weeks at a time?

      I watch hockey for the rough and tumble too, but I don’t want to watch great talent wasted in this way.

      It takes nothing to injure a man, neither skill nore brains nor even size in many cases. So what does it prove?

      Why not just watch MMA if you’re so into pointless violence?

      • You completely missed the point Phil.Are you that way all the time, on every topic?

  7. This is why I will never encourage my child to play competitive hockey.

  8. Get rid of the instigator rule, or at least enforce it sensibly. Encourage metrosexuals and other PC pussies to start a league of they’re own. Get rid of the dangerously stupid equipment (shoulder pads and elbow pads) to something that actually resembles hockey gear. Bring back the red line and wooden sticks and for heavens sake train some decent referees and enforce the rules. Get rid of Bettman and bring in a hockey man to run the leagues affairs. The amount of cowardice in the game today is stunning… NHL hockey is truly a lost art. Get rid of the girly men and bedwetters encrusted within the media… nothing is more pathetic then listening to those effeminate whiners crying at every hit.

    • This year playoffs are just fine this is the way hockey was ment to be played. If you don’t like it don’t watch it.
      As for Carkner he was defending Erik Karlsson after Boyle who is 6,7 and 250 lbs. Punch him 5 or 6 time (Karllson is 5,10 and 180. You say Boyle deserves credit for not fighting. This is the same magazine that I have read about how to get ride of bulling. What Matt Carkner did was very apropiate. It sparked the Senators to a game 2 victory. And proved that Brain Boyle is a coward.

  9. Neanderthal Hockey League

  10. Want to get rid of head shots and nasty play, and STILL watch great hockey??? Eliminate the fourth line, and the instigator rule. Players that are not as skilled/slower/dirty won’t make the show, and the stars will shine. 

  11. Its hockey. This happens from time to time. You put up more rules and its one step closer to banning fighting. the only reason we havnt seen this so much in the past is because teams use to hire big gorrila sized guys to protect and defend certain players who were critical to there team. Ex wayne gretzky

  12. Fighting, boarding and other such activities in hockey are, and always have been, a poor players attempt to bring the good player down to his level.

  13. Hockey will change eventually.

    It will probably take a concussed player, having convulsions on the ice, on a nationally televised game on NBC, causing sponsors to flee like they were running out of a burning building. But that’s only a matter of time with the way the NHL treats this stuff. They day after that happens, the NHL will do some serious soul searching, and finally change for the better. Kind of like how they cracked down on obstruction, but it took a lockout and ANGRY fans to make it happen.

  14. Send the perpetrator off, letting his team play a man short for the entire game (as is the case
    in other sports). Even the goons who control the players will soon get the message!

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