Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Standards- not a “head shot” penalty- are what the game needs

Call it hockey’s “(Head) Shot Heard ‘Round The World”.

On October 30, 2009, midway through the second period of the Erie Otters’ 4-0 loss to the Kitchener Rangers, Otters forward Michael Liambas saw an opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to Rangers defenceman Ben Fanelli. The puck had just been dumped in and Fanelli went in to retrieve it, momentarily turning to face the boards in order to play the puck. Unbeknownst to Fanelli, Liambas was zeroing in right for him, and at the exact second where Fanelli turned, Liambas drilled Fanelli face first into the boards. The force of the impact left Fanelli laying motionless on the ice, forcing him into the Intensive Care Unit of the Hamilton General Hospital. The original play resulted in no penalty call, with the referees only ejecting Liambas only after seeing Fanelli lie motionless. Fortunately for Fanelli he was recently released from Hamilton General and is resting at his home, but it’s unknown if the offensive defencemen- who, at just 16, was regarded as a promising prospect- will be able to resume his hockey career. As for Liambas, he was suspended by Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch for the rest of the season including the playoffs, likely ending the 20-year-old Liambas’ junior career. It’s probably not the last we’ll hear from Liambas- likely an NHL team is going to think of him in an enforcer role, much like Jesse Boulerice (who was charged with assault after an incident during his OHL career) did- but for now his hit- as well as less serious hits such as the hits on Jonathan Toews and David Booth- has served to reignite the “head shot” penalty debate, the proposed penalty often seen as the answer to making hockey less violent.

In the case of making hockey less violent, there’s no question I’m on board. As much as I love the big hits that a hockey game brings, numerous on-ice incidents- such as Marty McSorely’s infamous lumberjack chop at Donald Brashear’s head or the most famous hit from behind, Eddie Shore’s hit on Ace Bailey- have created a culture of peril on the ice, with players in constant fear for their safety. The game has, believe it or not, improved greatly in this regard (Ross Bernstein wrote in “The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL” that players in the early days of hockey would actually strike each other with their sticks, sometimes hacking all the way to the bone), but as recent hits like Liambas’ or McSorely’s show, we still have a long way to go before we can say we’ve actually solved the problem. The solution, however, is not a “head shot” penalty; it’s to call the penalties we already have with more consistency.

The rationale for this is pretty simple- just about any hit you could classify as a “head shot” could be classified under several other penalties, like charging, boarding and checking from behind, so to remove these dangerous “head shots”, start calling these penalties with greater consistency- we don’t need an additional, rulebook clogging rule. There’s absolutely no reason why the penalties we already have aren’t called in today’s game- the game is faster now that clutching and grabbing is essentially out of the game, meaning high-speed collisions have returned to the game. That should mean that charging penalties would also make a reappearance, because charging is directly related to hitting. Just for clarification, charging is supposed to be the rule against “head-hunting”, specifically penalizing players who hit players too violently, including those who skate too far to make a hit or go out of their way to make such a hit. I humbly ask you, my readers, how many times have you seen that happen? Furthermore, how many times have you seen a charging penalty called in such instances?

Okay, time’s up (not that this was a quiz). Short answer to both questions: “many” and “never”. Well, it’s actually “almost never”- in the 12 games that were played on Saturday, only Los Angeles King Michal Handzus received a charging penalty (on a play where Handzus was a retaliator to a Steve Downie charge). The Saturday prior (where 13 games were played), not a single charging penalty was assessed. Over those two sets of games, six boarding penalties (the infringement against “charging” a player into the boards, similar to Liambas’ hit) were assessed. The incidence rate of boarding penalties appear in line with their actual incidence rate in games (though some are still missed), but in light of the several infamous open-ice collisions we’ve seen thus far this season (like Chris Neil’s hit on Viktor Hedman), charging penalties are woefully under-called. Now, this isn’t to suggest that *all* big hits are charging penalties, but I do believe several hits of the past few years that have been deemed “clean” are just not clean, because very few people seem to have a true understanding of what a charging penalty is.

That, in essence, is the real problem regarding head shots- there is no standard regarding hits. Every year, we’re faced with hits with varying degrees of questionability and we have varying degrees of answers. No two people have the same answer as to what constitutes a “clean” play against a dirty one. There are just two things hockey fans, players, coaches and executives can agree on. First is the fact that hockey is a contact sport, and thus the ability to physically push a player off the puck (what a bodycheck is) is an integral part of the game. Because of this, unfortunately, some guys getting pushed off the puck are going to get hurt. This leads to the second thing the hockey world agrees on- because players can get hurt being pushed off the puck, there is unanimous agreement that players be protected from “unnecessary” hits (including “dirty” hits) so that the risk of injury (especially “unnecessary” injuries) is minimized as much as possible. That’s where the agreement ends.

In fairness, as outlined previously, the battle to achieve the balance between “dirty” hits and “clean” hits has been ongoing since the dawn of the NHL, and none of the successive NHL presidents have been able to strike that delicate balance. However, at issue is the fact that nowhere in Gary Bettman’s regrettable 16 year reign has the NHL had a clear standard on *anything*, let alone a standard for hits (the obstruction fouls are again starting to become inconsistent, but that’s another story). The best cited example is the “stomps” of 2007, one by Chris Simon (which netted him a 30-game suspension) and the other by Chris Pronger (which netted him an eight game suspension), as it became obvious that the only reason why Pronger (who, like Simon, was a repeat offender) did not receive a harsh suspension (Pronger’s came with nine games to play in the season) was because Pronger was a star player. Such treatment isn’t exclusive to stars, as earlier in that same year we had Downie railroading Dean McAmmond (a charge, by the way, which wasn’t called so on the ice) which saw Downie slapped with a 20-game ban, but Randy Jones would receive only a two-game ban for a vicious check from behind on Patrice Bergeron while Raffi Torres’ charge to David Moss’ head would only garner a $2500 fine. Nor are stars themselves immune to the lack of standards, as in 1995 Winnipeg Jet Teemu Selanne was suspended for three games for a vicious two-handed slash to Toronto Maple Leaf Dimitri Mironov (making allowances for the fact that season was shortened, prorated over a whole season the suspension would be five games) whereas five years later Scott Niedermayer would commit the same action (only this time whacking his stick on Peter Worrell’s head) and receive a ten-game ban.

Bettman appeared to get off to a great start in stamping out violence in handing out a 21-game ban to Dale Hunter back in 1993 after running Pierre Turgeon from behind during the playoffs, but since then his actions have been wildly inconsistent, and- not surprisingly- violence in the NHL has increased. Of the eleven suspensions which are 20 games or longer, all but two of them (Billy Coutu’s lifetime suspension in 1927 and Tom Lysiak’s 1983 suspension of 20 games, both for abuse of an official, being the only exceptions) have occurred under Bettman’s watch. Many of these nine suspensions were “one-hit wonder” type of suspensions, the result of a hit that had garnered widespread media attention (such as the McSorely hit). Very rarely did Bettman issue a dramatic suspension unless the hit became a focal point, meaning many similar hits would receive tiny suspensions or none at all. The inconsistency has meant that no one knows what constitutes a clean hit anymore, because Bettman and his various cronies keep on changing the definition.

Ultimately, they’ll have to figure out what that definition is because that’s the only way you can guarantee a safer game. This drive to create a new penalty is born out of the NHL’s inability to enforce its own rules, and only once the NHL realizes it already has rules to penalize head shots can it start along the road to a meaningful solution. The truth is, player safety is compromised because the players themselves have no idea what is and isn’t a penalty, meaning that players who “play on the edge” are given free rein to run anyone they want. Having no standards is like having no rules at all, because no punishment could ever be justified. The players know this, so they figure that if the NHL isn’t going to protect them they have to protect themselves; and it’s through this idea of “vigilante justice” that the game’s worst offences become hatched. Everyone knows Todd Bertuzzi punched Steve Moore in the back of the neck and tackled him, breaking Moore’s spine. What many don’t know is that three weeks before Bertuzzi’s attack, Moore charged Bertuzzi’s then teammate Markus Naslund, forcing Naslund to miss three games. Had the referees been in control and assessed Moore the proper penalty none of these shenanigans would have happened. Sports like football or rugby- sports just as tough if not tougher than hockey- don’t devolve into violent revenge fests after dirty hits (like they do in hockey) because the game officials have control of the game, and there are cases where if NHL officials act appropriately, vigilante justice does not occur. Then-New York Islander Chris Simon’s slash of then-New York Ranger Ryan Hollweg in late 2007 is a prime example- Simon was ejected from the game and suspended for 25 games for the slash, and when Simon next played the Rangers (and Hollweg) the game passed without incident. If that’s not a statement for how the NHL should operate, then I don’t know what is.

This brings me to a digression before I get to my final thoughts. I’m sure a number of you are going to think that the solution to making the game safer is to get rid of the instigator penalty. Here’s a few points about the instigator penalty that need to be known. First, it’s not new- the rule was introduced in 1991, and dangerous incidents have occurred before and after then. Furthermore, the spike in 20-game suspensions came after 2000, nine whole years after the rule’s introduction, and the cries to get the instigator rule eliminated really only began after the lockout. Second of all, the instigator penalty is rarely called- on November 14, there were eight fights and not once was the instigator penalty assessed. The Saturday prior, there were nine fights with the instigator penalty assessed once. Just out of that rough sample, the instigator penalty rate sits at 5%. A similar study conducted by TSN two seasons ago reported that the instigator is only called in 10% of fights. Personally, like the charging penalty, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen it called. I just don’t know how the instigator penalty is some kind of “roadblock” as it’s made out to be with the reality like that.

In conclusion, there really is only one solution the NHL should be pursuing to eliminate dangerous “head shots” and all the other kinds of “dirty” hits- start enforcing the rulebook. To the letter, no matter the point in the game, if the penalized team already has a man (or five) in the box or how many penalties one team has. Penalty calling needs to be consistent, and no part of the rulebook should ever be favoured over another. Furthermore, NHL discipline should be consistent, with egregious hits receiving (relatively) the same suspension regardless of who the culprit is. It might behove the NHL to set “minimum suspensions” for certain acts (e.g.- a hit from behind into the boards is a minimum of five games) so that players know precisely what the severity of a specific action would be, the only allowances for extra severity being how many times the player had been previously disciplined by the NHL. The only way the rules can work is if they’re enforced and enforced consistently- otherwise, why have a rulebook at all?

Finally, I do believe one rule change is in order, but not one specifically mandating a “headchecking” ban. This rule change would be an additional rule (one I suggested a few years ago), where a player who accumulates too many penalties in one game is automatically ejected from a game, with another automatic one-game suspension occurring if a player accumulates too many penalties over the course of several games. A few years ago I suggested that number to be six penalty minutes in one game and 24 PIM over multiple games, but those are not hard numbers- they could be set to different totals or, for the PIM over multiple games, the “suspendable” PIM could only come from committing certain types of penalties, such as too many charging penalties. My point is that currently there’s no incentive for a player not to take a penalty in certain situations, such as at the end of an already resolved game or in the case of coincidental minor penalties where, in some cases, a penalized player is successful at drawing a player from the opposition with him to the penalty box, nullifying any disadvantage his team would have had. Again, it’s a player safety issue because “meaningless penalties” provide the perfect forum for a cheap shot, plus do you really want someone in a game who’s not interested in following the rules? I certainly wouldn’t.

The bottom line is that NHL officials have lost the trust of the players- that’s why the players feel the need to protect themselves and commit all kinds of “dirty plays” just to “get back” at others who wronged them- and it’s imperative that they get it back. As I’ve shown, vigilante justice is just not a viable option, because all it does is create a “culture of violence” where any length can be taken to achieve revenge (such as the Bertuzzi incident), which leads to an endless cycle of violence. The only reason why this culture is allowed to proliferate is because the NHL itself has been reprehensibly lax in its enforcement of its rules and if it wants the players to stop maiming each other, it needs to start enforcing its rules properly. Otherwise, it will have no players left to officiate, and that is not the future the NHL should want.


Turns out, Toronto Maple Leafs blogger Down Goes Brown has it all figured out, and he's got it for us in a handy flowchart:

The NHL's top secret flow chart for handing out suspensions

That chart is hilarious, and it underscores the point made in in this article: if this isn't an example that the NHL really needs a set of firm standards, I don't know what is.


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