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A Shake-Up From Shanahan


Explaining the sport you love, to friends and family who are unfamiliar to it, can sometimes be a difficult task. Many the hour I have tried to break down the rules of ‘the code’, despite there never actually being any written confirmation of them.

“So Bertuzzi was wrong for punching Steve Moore in the back of the head, but most of the damage to Moore was done when Bertuzzi fell on top of him, followed by Moore’s teammate Andrei Nikolishin and Bertuzzi’s teammate Sean Pronger I explain. My companion nods slowly. At this point I do wonder if maybe I should have explained the whole ‘bounty on Moore’s head’ situation.

“But surely it was retaliation for Moore’s dirty hit on Marcus Naslund? And that’s allowed in ‘The Code’ right?” I’m slightly impressed. There was I, thinking she had glazed over, and had lost interest, when really, she’d taken it all in and was just paying attention with a gormless look on her face. My ‘concentration’ face isn’t much better, and it has been known to involve me sticking my tongue out before now.

“Retaliation is indeed allowed, however, this had already taken place. Moore had fought Matt Cooke earlier in the game. He’d stood up and accepted a fight that was expected of him. That was him taking his punishment. The fact Moore fared quite well and gave a good account of himself didn’t matter. He’d accepted a fight, and that should have been that. The issue was that people wanted to see Moore get destroyed, and that didn’t happen, so Bertuzzi took it upon himself.” At this point, we are interrupted by ‘life’ and have to continue the conversation at another time, but the recent changes in discipline have brought up this kind of subject once again.

Cheap play and dirty hits were never part of the game 30 years or so ago. The issue has come along since players have got bigger, faster, and more protected by armour. I certainly know then when I dress in my hockey armour and take to the ice, padded up to the max, I feel like Robocop, and use my 6’3”, 220lb build to its max. I know I can hit the boards at pace if I need to, or skate hard to crash the net, since even if I collide with someone, or something, chances are I’ll be fine to the protection. I wouldn’t like to skate hard to the net with sticks and elbows flying around if I WASN’T wearing such protection. The players protection means that huge hits are going to be commonplace, because the pain of throwing a big hit has been removed.

The problem is that despite the physical exterior of your head being protected, having someone elbow it causes such a trauma to the interior part of your head (the soft, squishy, and rather important bits) that whiplash and concussions are more common than ever.

The biggest factor, however, is the removal of the instigator penalty. Back before this penalty was introduced, if a player was agitating, and playing cheap (are you listening Trevor Gillies?), then the other team would send out the enforcer, who would sort it out. Either the cheap player cut it out, or he’d have to stand up and fight. It was an accepted way of policing the game, and the players respected that. It cut out the dangerous plays, because nobody really fancied having to fight enforcers like Tony Twist, Bob Probert, Rob Ray, or Kelly Chase, unless they really, really had to.

Now though, an enforcer has to get the cheap player to agree to drop the gloves, which of course, they rarely do. When the NHL introduced the instigator rule, then they took on the burden of policing the games themselves. The officials were expected to see all the dirty plays, and the authorities were expected to dish out suitable punishments to those involved. Unfortunately, the officials can’t be expected to see every single move that every player makes on the ice, and as such, the officials miss things. When the enforcer enters the ice to make the cheap player pay for his actions, the enforcer gets an extra 2 minute penalty, rewarding the cheap player’s team with a powerplay. The punishments ended up being a metaphorical lucky dip. The lack of consistency meant that similar offences were being dealt with completely differently, and there was often a wild guess as to the punishment.

When there’s a chance that a cheap player can get away with playing dirty, then they’ll take it. And even if they do get caught, depending on what day it is, depends on how severe the suspension is. Last season we saw some sicken examples of dirty play, that some players took part in without any concern as to their subsequent punishments. The Islanders and Penguins spent nearly two games knocking the living daylights out of eachother, including goalies fighting players, concussions, and other dangerous plays. Obviously the precedent for suspensions was so  hit-and-miss, the player felt they could take their chances. Star NHL player Sidney Crosby missed a huge part of last season due to a hard hit to the head, and was out with concussion, only resuming skating intensively during pre-season. Multiple top players have been out with severe concussions for some considerable time, with Marc Savard being the best example. Many believe Savard’s career is over, due to the severe head trauma he suffered.

Would these events have happened if instead of a randomly-generated suspension, a really good beat-down was administered to the offending player? Who knows? However, one thing is for sure. If a player is lining up another player for a head-hit, a check to the head, or a slash up high, then if punishment is instant, and brutal, then it’s a better deterrent than a few games on the sidelines. If your play takes out the opposition’s star player for a couple of months, then your 4-game suspension was probably worth it. If, however, you know that dirty play near a team’s star player will result in a weighty punch to the face, then it’s harder to justify it to yourself. Everyone knows that punishment. Being repeatedly smashed in the face by someone bigger than you is the kind of deterrent we all understand.

This pre-season saw some of the usual plays being made. Dangerous hits, cheap play, and agitators making the most of the flexibility in the system. This time though, something else happened. New NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan slapped big suspensions on players for what, last year, would have been deemed as ‘part of the game’. Wisniewski, Staubitz, and Boyes have all been handed big, fat suspensions, that carry into the regular season, and recently Jean-Francois Jacques was suspended by the NHL, for whichever games he makes the roster for, so basically, there’s no point in NHL team taking him on, since he wouldn’t be able to dress for 5 games. It’s also being considered by the AHL to make his suspension take affect there too. That’s some serious ramifications for what was a nasty and unnecessary play, and so it should be.

Maybe now, the punishments being dished out by the NHL will be both consistent, and appropriate? Certainly, Shanahan’s suspensions have been suitable, and the follow-up videos explaining why the action was deemed illegal are most welcome. There’s a real “That was illegal, this is the punishment and here’s why we think it’s a suitable one”. Surely this is how it was meant to me?

If the NHL is steadfastly refusing to remove the instigator penalty, then this, I hope, is the next best thing. Maybe then we’ll have less serious concussions and injuries. Sadly however, Marc Savard won’t feel any benefit.

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