Since its initial founding in 1917, the NHL has mad a lot of changes to make it the game it is today. Goalies now wear masks, there are 30 teams, and the redlines are gone. While these changes came with the times, there has been one recent rule change that many feel has not be fully enforced or effective.
The now infamous rule 48, dealing with illegal head shots, has different parts which explains what the rule is. 48.1 reads “A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.” This part makes sense because blindside hits give the game a black eye and bad press. However the repercussions for said actions have not been fully enforced.
What becomes a grey matter issue is what section 48.6 reads. ” Any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconducts under this rule, in either regular League or playoff games, shall be suspended automatically for the next game his team plays. For each subsequent game misconduct penalty the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game.
My question is why should it take two times for a person to be suspended? Why should they get an opportunity to commit the act again? Yes it is understood that referees can use their judgement, but how many of these refs follow it strictly by the book? The rules were set up in the mindset that players would learn from their mistakes. Players like Trevor Gillies and Matt Cooke were not obviously in mind when that section was adopted.
The most common excuse given by the NHL in regards to a non suspension is the fact of the individual being a first time offender, or the hit was an accidental one. Many fans regardless of team allegiance feel this to be bogus, political, and bueracratic.
The perfect analogy to relate hockey head shot retaliation to the real world is to use drunk driving. People who choose to consume alcohol make a conscious choice in doing so. There is nothing wrong in doing such a thing. As goes for throwing a hard hit in hockey. With the speed of the game there are unfortunate occurrences that just happen.
Continuing with the analogy, when they get behind the wheel they know they are drunk but choose to make themselves above the law. When they are caught the judge doesn’t let them off because it was their first time or because the offender promised never to do it again. Thousands of victims are killed via drunk drivers.
Just the same players can be injured by blindside hits. If you make an illegal hit, the punishment of a suspension should be enough of a deterrent. Critics would say that this would cause a lot of unnecessary suspension. However quite the contrary would occur. Due to such a hinderance a suspension would cause, all it would take is one player who misses and important game to realize and send a message in the locker room.
The best visual aid to use to show the damage of hit regardless of it being clean or blindside is the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. It is fully understood that the area where the hit took place was circumstantial but regardless, someone could have ended up paralyzed. The image left in fans mind was one full of shock and horror.
The game of hockey by no means was meant to be a soft game without hard checks, bumps, and bruises. So far in the playoffs we have seen hits to the head left and right that are in clear violations of this rule. The common diatribe that has been reiterated is that hockey is a tough game and players need to be aware. How can a player be aware of a blindside hit? Simply put, they can’t be aware in the obvious definition of what a blindside hit is.
There is a lot of differences between the infamous Scott Stevens layout of Eric Lindros a decade ago and what Mike Richards did to Tim Connolly. Lindros had the puck and was in the open ice and Stevens had a size advantage over him. Tim Connolly was visibly pushed by the hand of Richards and his head bounced off the glass. The Stevens headshot was legal and the Richards hit was illegal. While head shots will remain part of the game protection of the players is very vital.
Assessing in game penalties are simply not enough. So what if a team ends up capitalizing by scoring a power play goal as a result of a blindside hit infraction penalty. What message does that send? If Colin Campbell doesn’t start cracking down, someone is going to end up paralyzed and it will stain and tarnish the reputation of the game forever.
Nobody wants to see a repeat incident of the bad media coverage generated by the Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore incident. The NHL lockout occurring later that year helped to shift the focus and scope of the media as the majority of press was all about collective bargaining.
Another point to be made is why should the time of year the game is occurring play into wether a player will be suspended? Many fans watching like to say, ” oh it’s the playoffs… let them play.” A dirty hit regardless of preseason, regular season, or Stanley Cup game seven needs to be penalized and suspended. Until a severe message is sent the players and the fans will never learn. While fans never like to see referees decide the fate of a game, sometimes an action warrants it regardless of the circumstances surrounding the game.
It is easy to say all of this but implementing it is a whole another animal in it’s self. General managers and league officials need to revisit rule 48. All blindside hits should be given an automatic game misconduct and suspension. This seems harsh but it will send the message that anyone can be reprimanded. It seems only the Trevor Gillies and Matt Cooke’s of the league who have earned the enforcer reputation pay the price where skill players like Mike Richards walk.
It is never easy to be controversial or different. Change can and needs to be made to add longevity and life to the game. Everyone loves a great physical battle involving hard checks and blocked shots, but nobody wants to tune in to see a player carted off in a stretcher.
The NHL should be commended though for their concussion policy. It is a great thing that if a player shows symptoms of being affected that they can’t return to action without medical clearance. The best way to improve this policy is by making the necessary changes to rule 48. The best way to prevent concussions that are a result of blindside hits are to send a stern message that illegal head shots are not tolerated and offenders will be punished.
It is a very possible proposition. The NHL has been able to make changes in regards to longstanding traditions regardless of the backlash of public opinion. The NHL has a great opportunity to be a trailblazer in professional sports. If the NHL can do the right thing in regard to reforming rule 48, the whole world will take notice and other sports can make changes to better protect their athletes.
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