Hard questions about the NHL’s regulation of hockey violence

June 21, 2011

contract, Negligence, regulation

I’ve just surfaced following the Vancouver Canucks’ collapse at last Wednesday’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Notwithstanding the Canucks’ loss and the Boston Bruins win, the Finals offered some interesting insight into the National Hockey League’s management and regulation of the game.

  • Spleens have been vented over how the on-ice officials swallowed their whistles, especially during the Finals, and how it played to the Boston Bruins’ advantage enabling them to browbeat the Canucks into submission and take them off their finesse game. It is generally agreed that the referees employed a different standard of officiating in the post-season than in the regular season. On the one hand, it’s dismissed as ‘that’s playoff hockey’ but it raises a fundamental question: How should a party to a contract respond when its terms and conditions are interpreted differently at the time when it matters most?
  • Even further, Bruce Dowbiggen of The Globe and Mail characterized Bruins’ Brad Marchand ‘using the head of Hart Trophy finalist Daniel Sedin as a speed bag – to the approval of hockey’s blood culture’ and rhetorically asked, ‘Imagine an NBA rookie speed-bagging [playoff MVP] Dirk Nowitzki’s head going into a timeout or a first-year NFL player hitting [all-star] Tom Brady in the head repeatedly after the play. What do you think the response would be from those leagues?’
  • Bruce Dowbiggen wasn’t done yet though. He also provocatively asked the following: ‘One final thought on rookie Marchand: How come when he abuses a superstar he’s applauded by Hockey Night in Canada and the media as a savvy kid who gets under the skin to win. But when Montreal Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban did the same, we were told by the same voices that he was a punk with no respect who needed to be taken down a notch? Is it because Marchand is a Bruin, a sacred squad on Hockey Night, because Sedin is a European or because Marchand is white while Subban is black, or all of the above. Take all the time you need to answer.’ Ouch.
  • The NHL is to be commended for its four game suspension of Aaron Rome for his open ice hit on Nathan Horton in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Horton sustained a serious concussion and did not play the remainder of the series. The ends, however, do not justify the means. Rome was penalized not for a hit to the head in breach of Rule 48 but for interference. Mike Murphy, NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations, applied a phantasmical formula to the hit in assessing the suspension. The existence of the formula is just as abstruse as the existence as the ‘hitting zone’ behind the net which enabled Vancouver Canuck Raffi Torres to flatten Chicago Blackhawk Brent Seabrook earlier in the playoffs or Boston Bruin’s Zdeno Chara’s vicious hit on Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty which left Pacioretty with a severe concussion and an undisplaced fractured the fourth cervical vertebra which somehow escaped supplemental discipline from the league. The league appears to acknowledge the obtuseness of its approach to head shots. A blue-ribbon committee of former all-stars Brendan Shannahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman, and Joe Nieuwendyk (the first two are now with the NHL hockey operations staff whilst the latter two are general managers with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars respectively) has recently recommended to the league’s competition committee that Rule 48 be broadened and clarified. The solomonic challenge is to keep violence in the game but rid it of egregious violence. That’s easier said than done. As Ottawa GM Bryan Murray says, ‘We want hitting in the game, and there will be contact to the head, whether we like it or not, and it won’t be illegal all the time.’ Toronto Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke succinctly captures the flavour of inherent risk in hockey: ‘The tightrope we walk is [hockey] is a full contact sport …. We want to eliminate the really dangerous parts of the play but this is game where you’re going to get hit and there’s going to be injuries, and we’ve got to start with that basic understanding.’ Unspoken is the fact that the International Ice Hockey Federation, the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) prohibit any hit to the head and the quality and integrity of the game has not suffered as a result. If this is the case then how can traditionalists like Murray and Burke claim hits to the head are integral to hockey?
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