Time for the NHL to Stiffen Penalties on High Hits
Apparently there is a much higher value placed upon the head and possibly even the life of a National Football League player than there is on the head and life of a National Hockey League player.
That is one obvious conclusion drawn from the NHL’s reasoning for suspending Vancouver’s Aaron Rome for the remainder of the Stanley Cup final series after he leveled Boston’s Nathan Horton in the third game that the Bruins won, 8-1, last Monday. The four-game suspension was the longest handed down in Stanley Cup finals history and carried through the maximum of seven games if that many were necessary.
Horton, the Bruins’ best right winger, was hospitalized one night and then sent home after doctors stated he suffered a severe concussion.
Looking at replay of the hit, it appeared that Rome blind-sided Horton with a brutal, high hit that lifted him off the ice and slammed him down on that cold, hard surface at the TD Garden in Boston. Horton landed head first on the ice.
But Mike Murphy, the NHL senior vice president in charge of discipline for this final cup series, pointed out that Rome was not suspended because he hit Horton in such a way as to cause a traumatic head injury. The VP said Rome was penalized because he hit Horton late.
Murphy claimed Horton had passed the puck and was hit “close to a second late.”
Thus Rome was never in trouble because he nearly decapitated Horton by violently battering him to the ice. He was put off the rink for the remainder of the playoffs because he struck Horton a split second too late.
Timing seems to be a much more serious violation of NHL rules than causing any one of the more than 80 concussions reported in the league this season.
Helmet to helmet contact against any opponent in the NFL or slamming a shoulder into the head of an NFL opponent are now sufficient causes for heavy fines and suspensions for one or more games. The NFL has been attempting to cut down on head injuries and concussions in the last couple of years.
Too many retired pro football players have been dying of traumatic encephalopathy and/or Alzheimer’s disease resulting from past head injuries suffered while playing football for a living.
The NHL produces a game in which big men collide at much higher speeds than is reached when similarly huge men hit one another in pro football. So far the NFL has taken real steps to punish those who are head hunters while the NHL seems to care less about traumatic head injuries.
The NHL’s Murphy said of Rome’s hit on Horton, “This is just an interference penalty — an interference hit. If it had come immediately after he released the puck, it would be a legal hit. It happens all the time in our league.”
Also, if a couple of NFL players get into a fight, as happens from time to time, there will be serious penalties handed down by the NFL Commissioner that include suspensions for one or more games plus fines.
This is also true in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, where players receive suspensions and fines for fighting.
But the NHL, which is famous for its fights that break out every few minutes during a game, has long been different from other pro leagues. NHL players who engage in fisticuffs never get much more than a two-minute sitdown in the penalty box, if that.
There is an old saying in New York City: “We went to the fights at the Garden and a hockey game broke out.”
Alexandre Burrows, one of the Vancouver Canucks’ best and fastest skaters, really got his teeth into it when he and the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron went toe to toe or blade to blade in a fight during game No. 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, June 1. Burrows chomped down on one of Bergeron’s fingers for all to see time and time again via TV replay.
Everyone from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts clamored for Burrows to be suspended and some even urged he be put in a stock in Boston Common for the remainder of the playoffs.
Instead, NHL officials claimed they could find “no deliberate intent” on the part of Burrows’ finger biting and did not penalize him.
As a result, the most hated man in Boston since the Red Coats started shooting in 1775 was allowed to play in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals a week ago yesterday. Then Burrows really put it to the Bruins by scoring the first goal of the game and the winning goal in overtime as the Canucks won, 3-2, to take a 2-0 lead in the final series.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have gotten into bench-clearing brawls now and then during their historic rivalry that goes back more than 110 years. Can you imagine what would happen if, in the course of one of those harmless little diamond dustups at Fenway, Billy Martin, one of the scrappiest players to ever wear the pinstripes, bit the hand of Ted Williams?
Bostonians would have tarred and feathered the Yankee second baseman and sent him down Interstate 95 riding a rail.
Misconduct in sports has always been a problem best controlled by disciplinary actions such as suspensions and, in professional sports, fines.
Although the NHL does suspend players for certain things, it is lagging behind most other hockey governing organizations around the world with regard to head injuries.
The International Ice Hockey Federation, which oversees Olympic hockey; the National Collegiate Athletic Association and all European hockey leagues, pro and amateur, have established rules against direct head impact.
Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s greatest player since Wayne Gretzky, suffered a concussion in each of two successive games last winter. The 23-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins star was hit in the head by David Steckel of the Washington Capitals, Jan. 1, and then by Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jan. 5. Crosby, a major drawing card in the NHL, has not played since. But he recently received permission from his doctors to practice this summer.
One must wonder what it will take to get the NHL to fall in line with other body-contact sports leagues in order to help cut down on the pro hockey concussions.
As to Burrows’ bicuspid attack, the NHL could have at least given Patrice Bergeron the usual series of tetanus shots.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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