NHL Head Shots Should Garner Longer Suspensions

Brendan Shanahan has been a little too busy this post season.

But unfortunately, he doesn’t have a choice.

Yesterday, the NHL’s senior vice president of the department of player safety handed down a one-game suspension to New York Rangers defenseman Brandon Prust for elbowing New Jersey Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the head on Saturday.

It was the 12th suspension Shanahan has doled out this postseason.

Now 12 suspensions in  77 total games this playoffs might not seem like many, but last year there were only four the entire postseason.

This trend raises a few different questions. Are players committing more suspendable hits than before? Is Shanahan just being more nit-picky? Maybe a little bit of both?

I don’t know for sure, but I believe that players are playing the same way they always have. But after the rash of concussions last season, the NHL is stiffening up on their tolerance levels of violent and dangerous hits.

Seemingly.

The problem is, even though Shanahan is handing out suspensions like arenas hand out rally towels, players aren’t changing the way they play the game. Of the 12 suspension this postseason, eight of them featured legitimate head shots. I know the intensity is ramped up in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean reckless behavior should be ramped up as well.

The change to Rule 48 this offseason was supposed to eliminate head shots from the game, or at least decrease the number of them. But that hasn’t happened.Players are still consistently going out and hitting each other in dangerous manners.

It seems like the two most common dangerous hits players are still executing are hits to the head and boarding (which often result in head injuries). Every time I see a guy hit in the head or hit from behind into the boards, I wonder if any messages Shanahan are sending are getting through.

One problem might be with the messages themselves.

Out of the 12 suspensions given out this season, seven of them were for only one game. Of those seven incidents, four involved head shots.

The NHL needs to send a clear message that hits to the head won’t be tolerated. Ever. Suspending players for one game isn’t enough. The supplemental discipline needs to be far more severe if Shanahan wants to really get the players’ attention.

The latest was the Prust hit I previously mentioned. Here are the other three.

Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux delivers a hit to the head of Devils forward Dainas Zubrus on May 6.

Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom crosschecks Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverly on April 16.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal hits Philadelphia Flyers forwards Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux on April 15.

There were also two hits this postseason that were definite head shots that resulted in no suspension.

An elbow from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Scott Nichol on April 14.

And probably the worst non-suspension incident this season involving Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber and Detroit Redwings forward Henrik Zetterberg on April 11.

Weber was fined $2,500 for his actions, but was given no supplemental discipline.

It should have been easy to address Weber’s actions, so I don’t know what was more shocking; the fact that Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the glass repeatedly or the fact that Shanahan didn’t suspend Weber for a single game.

And when looking at Burns’ elbow, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between his and the shot delivered by Prust. Both were obvious elbows to the head that didn’t result in injury (and Burns even has a prior history of supplemental discipline). So why did Prust’s hit result in suspension while Burns’ did not?

Shanahan has to be more consistent with his rulings, especially when dealing with head shots.

In addition to the one-game suspensions (and incidents where no suspensions were given) there has been one head shot that resulted in a two-game suspension (Vancouver Canuck Byron Bitz boarding Los Angeles King Kyle Clifford on April 11), two head shots resulting in three-game suspensions (New York Ranger Carl Hagelin elbowing Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson on April 14 and Chicago Blackhawk Andrew Shaw delivering a blow to the head of Phoenix Coyote goaltender Mike Smith on April 14) and one that garnered a 25-game suspension. The obvious outlier is the 25-game suspension to Phoenix Coyote Raffi Torres, stemming from a hit on Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa.

Shanahan makes his rulings by using three basic criteria: how the hit happened, if a player was injured and if the offending player is a repeat offender. Torres received such drastic supplemental discipline because he violated three different NHL rules during his hit (interference, charging and an illegal check to the head), Hossa suffered a severe injury and Torres has been previously suspended or fined five previous times for similar incidents.

I agreed with the 25-game suspension, but again, the inconsistency of Shanahan’s ruling is what upsets me. When Haglin elbowed Alfredsson in the head, Alfredsson also suffered a head injury. But Haglin received only a three-game suspension.

And yes, I know that Haglin didn’t have any prior history of similar offenses, but when it comes down to it, it should be ruled in a similar manner because it was a head shot that resulted in injury. That’s the only way players will start to adapt and stay away from such dangerous hits, whether they are throwing an elbow like Hagelin or leaving their feet to target the head like Torres.

I know Shanahan wants to base all of his rulings on the details of each individual incident because each hit is different. But the bottom line should be an automatic suspension for a hit to the head, say for 10 games. Then after the base 10, Shanahan can look at the specific details and add additional games, setting precedents for future incidents. Players would definitely think twice about getting their elbows or shoulders up high if there’s a chance they could miss the rest of a playoff series.

I know it’s a drastic solution, but right now there’s too much at risk when it comes to head injuries. More research needs to be done on how concussions affect the brain long term, but it’s starting to look pretty clear in both ex-NHL players and ex-NFL players that head shots can ruin lives. And until better equipment can be developed to protect these players, the actions of the players themselves must be the solution.

Develop consistency in the disciplinary action and make it harsh. The players may not like it, but it’ll protect them in the long run and that’s what the NHL should be concerned about above all else.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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