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It's a rare time when I fully agree with Bob McKenzie, and apologies to former NHLers Matt Barnaby and Mike Johnson, but I do agree that the NHL was right to suspend Niklas Hjalmarsson his hit on Jason Pominville who is out indefinitely with a concussion. The other suspension this week was handed to Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski, who made an obscene gesture towards the Rangers' Sean Avery and was likewise suspended for two games. There are two problems here that have my scratching my head. First, people who say Hjalmarsson should not be suspended boggles my mind, especially after all the ambiguity that was (supposed to be) erased surrounding blindside hits over the summer. Second, that Wisniewski was suspended for a relatively harmless gesture.
Barnaby and Johnson contend that Hjalmarsson's hit is not suspension-worthy for different reasons. Barnaby believes Hjalmarsson shouldn't be suspended because he didn't have the intention of hurting Pominville. Johnson says it's a good hockey hit and that it happens more than once in every hockey game and it was the boards, not Hjalmarsson, that gave Pominville the concussion. Both former NHLers make fair points, but they're missing the big picture. Over the summer the NHL added a new rule to its book on the heels of Marc Savard and David Booth's concussions, giving the referees to penalize players for blindside hits to the head. Was Pominville's head the target of Hjalmarsson's hit? I don't think so, but nonetheless it was a blindside hit that caused a concussion. If you're to follow the rulebook word for word, then Hjalmarsson's hit is not worthy of a suspension. But if the NHL wants to limit these concussions, they have to make all blindside hits illegal, regardless of how, when, and with which part of the body contact was made. Blindside hits aren't just dangerous when the head is targeted, they're just dangerous in general. It's quite clear in the replay that Hjalmarsson hit Pominville from behind his right shoulder so the league was right to suspend Hjalmarsson, although I do think the penalty was a little too light. This was a great opportunity by the NHL to show a no tolerance policy for blindside hits and as usual they completely dropped the ball.
Compared to Hjalmarsson's hit, Wisniewski's gesture was relatively harmless. Was Wisniewski's gesture funny? I think it was, especially when considering the victim was Sean Avery, although it must've been a little awkward, from one guy to another. Was it inappropriate and immature? Definitely. Was there potential for anyone to be physically hurt from that incident? No. For that reason alone, that Wisniewski's gesture did not physically harm anyone, I don't think he deserves a suspension. It's definitely worth a hefty fine because it makes the NHL and the Islanders look bad and players need to be reminded that they are playing in front of children and they are considered professionals representing more than just themselves. If anything, it should be an internal issue for the Islanders. They are the biggest losers. If Wisniewski is to be suspended, it shouldn't be by the NHL, it should be from the organization for a blatant lack of professionalism. My verdict? Hjalmarsson gets three games and Wisniewski gets fined for $40,000, a little more than one game's worth of salary before taxes.
But you know what? I'm kind of glad Wisniewski did that. It's entertaining. Look how many headlines and discussions it has sparked. Hockey players are often criticized for being too boring and now when their personalities shine through, the league suspends them. See, if it wasn't for Avery's big mouth (he also provided a gem of a quote when asked about Wisniewski's gesture) he'd be a decent hockey player but he gets it. He understands that for the league to generate interest and become an ultimately more marketable product their needs to be personalities. It's what sells. As much as the NBA hates to admit it, Ron Artest does help sell tickets. Chad Ochocinco too. Avery knows he's not the poster boy for the NHL so he's happy to play the villain. Unfortunately for Avery, and to a certain extent the league, no one's taking the bait. Hockey players know when to shut up and play. When everyone refuses to play along just for the sake of drama, the end result is that Avery just looks like a dumb jerk mouthing off to no one in particular.
The NHL needs to protect its image and its product which is why I understand their decision to suspend Wisniewski, even though I disagree with it. But more importantly, the NHL needs to protect their players because the best measure of their success is tied to its on-ice product. When talented players like Jason Pominville, John Tavares, and Marc Savard are sidelined, the quality of hockey becomes worse.
On a Canucks-related note, they face off against the hapless Ducks tonight. After just averaging 1.5 goals in their first two games the Canucks have a great opportunity to open the offensive floodgates. So far this season the Canucks' supposed potent offense hasn't looked very dangerous.