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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.
Just in time for the annual GM meetings that are going to be held in Boca Raton this week, Matt Cooke's blindside hit on Marc Savard has drawn the ire of many, many people. Head shots will certainly be a hot topic at the meetings. No penalty was called on Cooke's hit although many, including myself, assume that a suspension is forthcoming. Savard has been flown back to Boston and will be seeing a concussion specialist and will be sidelined indefinitely. Cooke's hit is eerily similar to one earlier this year when Mike Richards concussed David Booth, sidelining for much of the season. When (not if) Cooke is suspended, it will be the third suspension the NHL has dealt this week. I can't help but feel that there is a double standard in play here and judging by the recent suspensions of Derek Boogaard and Maxim Lapierre, I'm not expecting too much from the NHL discipline office. Joe Haggerty from CSN New England has been calling for a lengthy suspension for Cooke, and it's quite clear which side he's on. If you watch the replay, and I think it's almost exactly the same as Richards' hit, Cooke doesn't stick out his elbow. It's clearly a shoulder to the head, and even Darren Dreger thinks so. Greg Wyshynski (Puck Daddy) doesn't go as far as Haggerty to call it an elbow, but he does argue that it's a late, cheap hit. It's also quite clear which side he's on: <img src="http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/2010/03/07/savard_stretcher_big_381.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">I am a little disturbed by that statement there, because it does show clear bias. Cooke is a repeat offender and one of the most hated pests in the league, but I don't think that just because of his reputation every questionable call should go against him. Neither Booth nor Savard were aware of who was on the ice, although to their credit both Richards and Cooke came from their blindsides. If Richards doesn't get a suspension, then I really think Cooke shouldn't either. Claude Julien is obviously calling for one because he's protecting his players, while Dan Bylsma claims that he didn't see it. Hits to the head by a shoulder are still perfectly legal and in a contact sport these kinds of things will and do happen. There is a certain "grace period" once a player gets a rid of a puck for his opponent to "finish his check" and that's what Cooke did. If Wyshynski thinks that Cooke's hit was late, then what was Scott Stevens' hit on Paul Kariya? The former Devils captain made a name for himself for his late bodychecks. Dion Phaneuf, perhaps one the league's most fearsome hitters, put it the best: The NHL discipline office has remained mum on the matter, which really isn't out of the ordinary. I thought their 2-game suspension for Derek Boogaard's kneeing on Edmonton's Ryan Jones was a complete joke. It was an obvious intent to injure and you never, ever go after someone's knee. It makes even less sense when they suspend Maxim Lapierre for four games after a shove from the back that sent San Jose's Scott Nichol into the boards. I agree that the play in itself was dirty and showed a clear lack of disrespect, but how can you suspend someone more games for giving an extra shove than an intentional knee? Even Nichol has somewhat softened his stance. Then there's stuff like this in the Edmonton Journal, sensationalizing the story, attempting to raise the disgust factor after listing Nichol as 5'7" (making him the league's smallest player with Brian Gionta) and 170 lbs. even though he's listed as 5'9", 180 lbs. on the Sharks' website. Nichol is expected to be back in 7-10 days while Jones' season is most likely done. So how do we fix the problem? Well, to be honest, I really don't see a problem with the Cooke/Savard and Richards/Booth incidents. Shoulder hits to the head will happen as long as bodychecking is allowed. You can't suspend a guy for that because what happens when Zdeno Chara hits Martin St. Louis? St. Louis' head is at Chara's shoulder height. It's part of the game. Things like these are unfortunate, but given the amount of body contact in hockey the occurrences are actually quite rare. I think in both incidences the refs were right not to call a penalty. A good hit is a good hit - don't let a player's reputation or the media dictate what happens. Props to Booth for showing some great hockey code by going after Richards himself. EDIT March 10th: Matt Cooke will not be suspended, which is a great decision by Colin Campbell, but when he says it's for "consistency's sake" I can't help but laugh. The NHL discipline office is anything but. I guess my logic that Campbell would be illogical and suspend Cooke was flawed. If that makes any sense. EDIT #2 March 10th: Tampa's Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have spoken out and were both unhappy with the lack of suspension for Cooke. I wonder where Lecavalier and St. Louis were when Richards laid the same hit on Booth... and I really wonder what they have to say about Steve Downie. There have been a lot of readers on TSN that have voiced their displeasure on the lack of suspension for Cooke and have accused the discipline office for being gutless and a joke. Had Cooke been suspended, it would've been a bigger joke. It was well within the rules for Cooke to hit Savard's head with his shoulder. There was nothing illegal about Cooke's play.