By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Upon further review, the NHL's draconian punishment of Penguins winger Matt Cooke looks preposterous and vindictive.
It has served no higher purpose, that's for sure.
It has not altered the behavior of head-hunting players; it has not changed the pattern of neglect established long ago by NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell. That much is clear in the first round — make that the knockout round — of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
I am no defender of Cooke, but what precedent was there for slapping him with a maximum 17-game suspension for his elbow on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh? Valuing playoffs over regular season, it could be argued the suspension is more like 25 games — maybe more — which is beyond ludicrous. Prior to that, Cooke had been suspended 10 games over his 11-year career.
Now, look at Tampa Bay winger Steve Downie, who was suspended 20 games for a vicious hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond three seasons ago. Downie delivered a carbon copy of that hit Monday night ... and was suspended for one game.
Or consider Vancouver's Raffi Torres, who in his first game back from a four-game, head shot-induced suspension, nearly decapitated Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who had not yet touched the puck behind his net. Torres was not suspended.
Don't try to convince me the length of Cooke's suspension was about anything other than the NHL's thin-skinned, old boys' network lashing back at Mario Lemieux. The Penguins co-owner, you might remember, wrote a scathing letter ripping the league in the wake of the debacle on Long Island on Feb. 11, when the Penguins and Islanders combined for 346 penalty minutes — third-most in an NHL game in the past 21 years.
The Penguins, attempting to spearhead a ban on head hits, were hardly in position to argue Cooke's suspension. Don't think Campbell didn't know it. Campbell, per league policy, was not available Wednesday to comment on suspensions.
Flash forward to the playoffs, where the motto has become "Head Shots for Everyone!" and keep in mind that this is the environment into which Sidney Crosby is contemplating a return.
You think a Downie-, Cooke- or Torres-type wouldn't delight in the chance to light up Crosby like a Christmas tree?
What's the risk, a one-game suspension?
I don't know who to blame anymore. Is it the players, too many of whom lack respect for fellow union members? The owners, who refuse to wrest control of their league from a faction of old-school GMs? The league, whose idea of a head-shot deterrent is doling out one-game suspensions — or worse, no suspensions?
Likely, it's all of the above, plus those fans who revel in the head-bashing and tell you to watch tennis if you don't like it. What they ignore is that hockey can be played in physical, intimidating fashion without gutless attempts to injure. Brooks Orpik's crushing but legal hit on Steven Stamkos in Game 1 was a perfect example.
I wonder if we've all lost our minds as I watch the clip of Torres skating 100 mph and decking Seabrook behind the net. Apparently, as Campbell attempted to explain, there is no rule in the NHL that prohibits launching oneself into a defenseless and puck-less player's skull. Campbell actually called it a "legal play" which makes you wonder why Torres was sent to the penalty box for interference.
Maybe Campbell's right. I have no idea anymore — never did, actually — on what represents a suspension-worthy hit. Neither do players, coaches, fans or referees.
And how rich is it that Campbell and Kris King are two of the NHL's top spokesmen for defining clean play? They might as well hire Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen to preach on clean living. In their combined 1,485 NHL games, Campbell and King totaled 81 goals and 3,322 penalty minutes.
Downie and Penguins winger Chris Kunitz — suspended a game for his ridiculous elbow to the head of multi-concussed Lightning forward Simon Gagne — served their one-game suspensions last night. Both should have been benched for the rest of the series, at least.
Kunitz's elbow was no different from Cooke's on McDonagh. True, Kunitz is not a repeat offender, but that stuff gets over-emphasized. What if your first offense is swinging your stick like a baseball bat and beheading somebody?
Might be worth a game or two in Campbell's world.
NHL's so-called discipline on head shots borders on criminal
By MARTIN FENNELLY
The Tampa Tribune
April 20, 2011
One game. One hour.
Sixty minutes, maybe a little more with overtime.
That's how long Lightning winger Steve Downie and Penguins winger Chris Kunitz have to sit for their head hunting in Game 3 of their playoff series. One-game suspensions for acting like Barbary apes.
And the NHL wonders why we think it's a joke when it comes to discipline, even with all its talk about cracking down and outlawing blindside head shots, which was outlawed just this season.
Downie's half-rink dash and Lady Bada-Byng launch into Pittsburgh's Ben Lovejoy in the first period of Game 3 and Kunitz's downright dirty elbow, with intent, to Simon Gagne's head a short time later deserved harsher punishments.
I guess NHL Commissioner Gary "No Neck" Bettman and his guys up in New York were too busy announcing their 10-year, $2 billion TV deal to bother taking any of this other stuff all that seriously.
What, the playoffs come around and all their big talk about big hits goes away?
If these guys were any more asleep at the wheel they'd be air traffic controllers.
Me? I think both Downie and Kunitz should be sitting out the rest of this series, at the very least.
This is how the NHL Senior Executive Vice President Colin Campbell, who is all over the place on supplemental discipline, described Downie's incident:
"Downie left his feet and launched himself at the head of his opponent and he came from a considerable distance, with speed and force, to deliver the check."
That is not exactly accurate -- Downie did not hit Lovejoy's head.
But his feet were about 3 feet in the air as he collided with Lovejoy.
Imagine if he had hit Lovejoy in the head. Downie has done that before.
Or imagine if Downie played for another team and had hit Marty St. Louis.
Imagine reaction in Tampa Bay.
This is how Campbell described the Kunitz incident:
"Kunitz delivered an elbow directly to the head of his opponent."
Accurate, completely, real thug stuff.
Why not just hand out candy instead?
It's not just the fact that Downie is a habitual offender when it comes to this sort of thing, which he most certainly is, with repeat offenses during his career.
This time: one game.
Nor is it just the fact that Gagne has already suffered several concussions in his NHL career.
Nor is it just the fact that this series, and these NHL playoffs, are going on without Sidney Crosby, who still hasn't been cleared to play after a concussion received on a blind-side shot from Washington's David Steckel, and which was aggravated by a hit by none other than Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
And it's not just the fact that already missing from this series was this season's answer to Luca Brasi, the oft-suspended Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, who got in so many cheap, dangerous shots this season that the league suspended him late in the regular season, right on through … the first round of the playoffs.
The guy shouldn't play at all.
Clearly, no one is getting the message, which maybe says the message isn't loud and clear enough.
In the cases of Downie and Kunitz, it shouldn't matter that Lovejoy and Gagne weren't seriously injured. Lovejoy even managed to get the puck up ice, and up ice it went, eventually into the Lightning net, for the first goal in the Penguins' 3-2 Game 3 victory.
The NHL has its Rule 48, the head shot rule. NHL general managers, at their recent meetings, talked a great game about getting serious about head shots. The league has established new protocols for concussions, including leading players to a "quiet room" for observation and examination by doctors during games. Leave your rally drums at the door.
But none of this matters if the NHL is going to do nutty things, as evidenced by the case of Vancouver Canucks winger Raffi Torres, who was suspended the final two games of the regular season, and first two games of Vancouver's playoff series with Chicago, for a head shot on Edmonton's Jordan Eberle.
Well, in Torres' first game back, Game 3 against the Blackhawks, Torres knocked Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook from the game with a shoulder to the head behind the net. Campbell and the league ruled no suspension was necessary. Torres played in Game 4. Seabrook, still recovering, did not.
In other news, a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the amount of time NHL players missed because of concussions rose from 1997 to 2004.
A couple of months ago, before the Lighting played the Penguins -- who were without Crosby then, too -- Gagne talked about his concussion history and the new league rule on head shots.
"I think they're doing the right thing," Gagne said. "It took them a while before bringing a rule, but I think it's going to take a little more than that. We have a rule on a blind (head) shot, but we're still having guys hit in the head. Until you go 100 percent against hits to the head, you're going to see those cracks.
You're seeing those cracks right now, in these playoffs, the playoffs missing Crosby.
Is this going to be a NASCAR deal, where you put up safe walls and require head-neck restraints after Dale Earnhardt is gone? Is it going to take a hockey player paralyzed, or worse?
Bettman, Campbell and the other league executives, they're the one who need to be led to a quiet room and have their heads examined.
This league was crazy for dropping so small a hammer on Downie and Kunitz, and even more so when it came to Torres. It borders on negligence, criminal negligence if it ever comes down to that, and it just might if someone gets hit in the head one time too many, or in just the wrong way, and never gets up.