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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.
When I tell people I live and breathe hockey, one of the most common answers I get is: "You like hockey? Really!? It's so barbaric! They fight all the time!" In a way, it is true. Grown men on skates in post-whistle scrums hacking, pushing, shoving, punching, trash-talking, fighting. What most people don't understand, and most often than not it's because they've had very little exposure to the sport either by watching or playing, is that there is a "hockey code" involved. I once tried to explain this to a friend of mine to justify all the "barbaric" things that happen on the ice but there were times where I really stumbled on my words to convey my message. It's not something easily understood. There's a certain honour when it comes to dropping the gloves and hitting someone, something that has clearly been lost as evidenced by this week's crazy sequence of events. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when hockey players lost respect for one another. Hits to the head, elbows, kneeing, slew foots have been just a few of the instances this year in which hockey players lost their ability to make good decisions. Mike Richards' hit was a poor decision. As was Matt Cooke's hit on Marc Savard, Patrice Cormier's elbow on Mikael Tam, and most recently James Wisniewski's hit on Brent Seabrook. It certainly doesn't help hockey's image when papers like the Boston Herald are actively calling for a punishment on Matt Cooke. This is head-hunting at its best. This all gives hockey a bad image. I'm a little shocked that Gary Bettman hasn't publicly said anything about the matter or the Herald's front page (... on second thought, I'm actually not). The last time an (alleged) head hunt was called ended in a nasty situation that involved a season-long suspension and fractured vertebrae. The NHL took huge five steps forward with the success of the Olympics with an all North American final but its image has once again suffered because the league has proved incapable and inefficient once again to really address the issues. In fact, I think the Pittsburgh-Boston game Thursday night was a great example of why the league really needs to get rid of the instigator rule. <img src="http://d.yimg.com/a/p/rids/20100319/i/r3602461247.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">First, I thought the Bruins responded in a great way to the incredible amount of pressure on them to exact revenge on Matt Cooke. Cooke knew what was coming too and obliged when he was challenged by Shawn Thornton in a spirited tilt (kudos to both). Thornton was tossed from the game for throwing punches when Cooke was vulnerable on the ice, but I'm glad that it didn't get worse, because really, it could've. Never mind the Bruins lost, that was asides from the point. Had Cooke declined the offer to drop the gloves (and he does have a history of doing that) the pent up rage of the entire Bruins squad and Boston crowd could've escalated into something much worse. In regards to Wisniewski's hit on Seabrook, had there been no instigator rule, I don't think the hit would've happened. Instead, Wisniewski would've dropped the gloves whether Seabrook was willing or not. In some ways, a spirited tilt in which the play is dead and the referees and linesmen's focus is on the fight, and in which Seabrook doesn't necessarily have to be as aware of the surroundings around him, makes it a much safer option than skating 20 feet and slamming Seabrook into the boards when he isn't looking. At least in a fight Seabrook has a chance to defend himself. It was clear Wisniewski wanted to send a message. I find it hard to believe that retaliation wasn't something he had in mind when he skated from his own bench and flew into Seabrook like a RPG. Fighting needs to stay in the NHL. Blindside hits and the instigator rule have to go. Respect, for the players and sport alike, needs to be earned again.