Posted: 15 March 2010 in geekery

If you’re not a hockey fan, feel free to skip this, because this is solely about hockey.

Hockey is a dangerous sport. Yes, there’s only been one player and one fan who died from injuries sustained during an NHL game in the history of the league, but it’s not an injury-free sport. Well-muscled men skate upwards of 50mph up and down a 200+ foot sheet of ice, throwing themselves into each other, wearing razor blades on their feet and carrying carbon-fiber sticks which they use to propel a chunk of frozen rubber up to 110mph at a net guarded by a guy who gets paid to get between said rubber and the back of the net, and frequently, players start throwing punches at each other. If you can’t see the immediate propensity for danger there, you are a sociopath.

Now, knowing that it is a dangerous sport, the league has taken a number of precautions to keep players healthy and uninjured. “Not dying” is not a good baseline – “not suffering a career-ending injury” seems to be, but realistically, “doing everything possible to keep the game fun while keeping players from missing time due to things we can prevent by rules or equipment” should be the league mantra. For the most part, it is… with a few notable exceptions.

The one that most concerns me is what the league does when a player is a safety concern. Hockey has always been known as a rough-and-tumble sport with its fair share of dirty players. Sometimes, these dirty players get out of hand. Take Alexander Ovechkin. A Russian wunderkind who truly is worth the price of admission to watch, even if he’s annihilating your team. He is a phenomenon in all hockey respects – a future hall-of-famer. He’s also a dirty player. Knee-to-knee hits, hits from behind, boarding… he’s done them all and been fined and suspended for them. Just a clarification for those who continued reading past the first sentence with no hockey knowledge, knee-to-knee hits are pretty much a guarantee of injuring another player, hitting from behind is a good way to give a guy a concussion, and boarding is a good way to break a guy’s neck. All of these will warrant an ejection from the game and a possible suspension, but the point of this post is that I don’t think that goes nearly far enough.

These events are not actually commonplace. We’re not talking every game, we’re talking once a month maybe (out of 100-200 games league-wide). What we do see, however, is that when someone gets drilled from behind, boarded, or takes a knee-on-knee hit, 9 times out of 10 you’re wondering if it’s a repeat news story because you’ve heard the offender’s name before. Obviously, the threat of suspension isn’t even enough to keep one of the league’s best players (and the captain of his team!) from reining himself in, so there needs to be a more severe punishment. Four game suspension? Pittance. Forfeiture of per-game salary? Who cares when they’re making millions?

What I’m talking about is indefinite suspension. Once there’s a pattern (like, the second time), the suspension shouldn’t be a fixed length of time. It should be, to be completely fair, as long as the player that was injured is out for. Brooks Orpik broke Erik Cole’s neck, ending his season. Orpik should have been off the ice until Cole came back. Cole recovered very quickly and was back in action the next season, but Orpik could have killed him or ended his career. Why should Orpik be given what amounts to a slap on the wrist while Cole laid in traction?

I think that such a system would effectively eliminate players who make a habit of dirty tactics that have high rates of injury. When you deliver an illegal hit that knocks a guy out for two months, and you’re gone for two months, you’re going to think twice about delivering that hit again. And if you don’t, I can guarantee that the General Manager is going to think twice about tossing a roster spot at someone who might bench themselves for indefinite amounts of time.

Now, to be perfectly clear – I’m not talking about players like Scott Stevens or Rob Blake or even Mike Richards who deliver devastating but legal hits that injure players. Stevens didn’t get ejected when he plastered Ron Francis, Eric Lindross or Paul Kariya, because those hits were all perfectly legal open-ice hits.

People may say that they watch NASCAR for the crashes and hockey for the fights, but no one watches hockey in the hopes of seeing a player strapped to a board and carted off the ice. The league needs to get real about players who repeatedly and maliciously injure other players.

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