Last month, my column (“Injuries Threaten Hockey’s Future,” A9, March 27, 2012) focused on the concussion epidemic in the National Hockey League. Unfortunately, things have gotten worse since then.

The 2012 NHL playoffs have absolutely lived up to the hype generated by pitting the cup-favorite Pittsburgh Penguins against their in-state rival and kryptonite Philadelphia Flyers. Unpredictability is once again at an all-time high, and thanks to the NHL’s new 10-year, $2 billion TV deal with NBC, every playoff game has been aired nationally for the first time ever. On the surface, the game of hockey seems to be peaking.

Most of the press, however, has been focused on the violence that seems to be at its worst since the brutal 1970s.

This April, game three of the Penguins and Flyers’ best-of-seven series — in which Philadelphia took an improbable 3-0 series lead on their way to a 4-2 series victory — featured 158 combined penalty minutes on 38 penalties. Considering that a hockey game lasts 60 minutes, it is clear that “extracurricular activities” were prominent in the 8-4 game result. Following that game, the Penguins lost three players to suspension, but only one for more than a single game.

Brendan Shanahan, former NHL superstar and current head disciplinarian, has been blamed for much of this situation. Taking over after a flimsy and debatably corrupt disciplinary regime — his predecessor’s son plays for the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins — Shanahan was expected to give out harsher and more consistent punishments. Thus far, however, he has failed to do so.

It all started early in the playoffs when Nashville Predators captain and star defenseman Shea Weber followed a high elbow by Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg by grabbing the winger’s head and slamming it into the boards several times in the game’s dying seconds. For this abomination of a play, Weber received only a slap on the wrist — a $2500 fine — and no suspension. Rather than making an early statement, Shanahan sent the message that too much will be tolerated.

It took only one week for the repercussions everyone was dreading to materialize. Last week, in game three of the series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Phoenix Coyotes, Phoenix grinder Raffi Torres charged into sniper Marian Hossa’s head with a late intentional hit. Considering Torres’ history — he has been suspended or fined five previous times for similar hits — and the fact that Hossa suffered a severe concussion on the play, Torres was suspended for 25 games, which will include the remainder of the playoffs, the entire preseason and a portion of next year’s regular season.

The suspension was somewhat shocking following a series of one- and two-game bans, and many feel that it was in response to the criticism the league was taking for its lack of action. It is clear that the NHL wanted to send a message to Torres.

This isn’t the first time outside pressure has forced the NHL to hand down long suspensions. Penguins enforcer Matt Cooke was considered one of the dirtiest players in the league well before a long suspension for an elbow to the head at the end of last season convinced him to change his style of play.

His decision paid dividends, as Cooke recorded 38 points this season, his highest total in nine seasons. Even more importantly, Cooke has reduced his penalty minutes from an averge of 112 per season the last three seasons to only 44 this year. Hopefully, Torres can make a similar shift. When playing the right way, he has proven he can be an effective player.

The question, however, is whether this suspension condemns hits to the head or simply reinforces the theory that there is a double standard when it comes to NHL discipline: Grinders get suspended and stars do not.

It is a valid question, arising not just with Weber but many other times in the recent past. It seems that, besides the necessary three-game break that Capitals star Alex Ovechkin gets every so often for an illegal hit — a penalty he usaully deserves more than his victim — it takes a full-fledged sucker punch, like those delivered by Todd Bertuzzi, for a star player to get any kind of suspension.

It is understandable that the NHL wants to sell its product — even opposing owners often want Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin in the lineup when the Penguins and Caps come to town for ticket-selling purposes. But if one thing is becoming clear, it is that the concussion issue is getting worse before it gets better.

In my March 27 column, I voiced a hope that Crosby’s injury troubles would lead to harsher penalties in the league, but I fear that it has simply reinforced the double standard already in place.

The National Hockey League is at a critical juncture, and if Brendan Shanahan is not willing to bring the necessary transparency and accountability to the league, then it is time to find somebody else who is.

Arik Parnass is a freshman in the College and a Deputy Sports Editor of The Hoya. CANDID CANADIAN appears every Tuesday.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*