Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rule 88: No Bumps to the Noggin. Period. Exclamation Point.

The games: Portland Winterhawks vs. Everett Silvertips (3/9). Chicago vs. LA Kings (3/10).

Why I chose them: They chose me. It was the last Winterhawks home game in the regular season. LA vs. Chicago is like picnic time for grown up hockey teddy bears. Cristobal Huet, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Anze Kopitar together on the ice. No other motive required.

Back on the home front: We blanked Everett 3-0 and it was Mac Carruth's first career shutout. Most importantly, the power play didn't suck. Also, pooh to the ref who broke up that almost fight between Ryan Johansen and Rissanen. It's not like Ryan starts a fight every three seconds...that's what would have made it so cool. When nice Canadian boys who generally stay out of the fray go for it, I say get out of the way and let us enjoy the moment.

Detour ahead, for tonight: I was going to write about the next rule in the IIHF, but head hits are on top of mind for the NHL, and they are definitely on my mind, so pardon me while I digress for this entry.

Here's the new proposed rule that emerged from the NHL's GM meeting: The vote was unanimous on this one. "A lateral, back pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or is the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."

Extra note about why this is important: Rules in the NHL Rulebook do not say "don't do something or its not permitted, banned, etc." They just define the offense (boarding, clipping, charging, etc.) and outline the penalty. But intent and harm and/or injury do result in more serious penalties or supplemental discipline.

Why this will not likely be an easy one to implement and enforce: Telling players they can't hit another in any manner is a lot like telling kids they can go in the toy store, but you won't buy them anything. Even though many players probably agree that head hits are not cool, dude, I'm sure there is also a bit of ire about "where is the line drawn?"

Now as we all know: I love a good clean hit. Fighting is my favorite rule to see broken. I encourage full-on line brawls with mitts flying and jerseys off and helmets on the ice. I love watching guys go at it in unmitigated macho BS when they're tied at 3 in the third with 15 seconds to go. But head hits are not clean, they are not necessary and they are not cool, dudes.

Here's the thing: Players who are good enough to get into the NHL as early-round draft picks, get a good deal with a good team and stay there are good enough to find a better way to win. Head hits are the mother of all cheap shots, which I hate with an unmitigated passion. But there is a bigger reason that I hate them, which transcends the game. Here it is:

Here in Portland, we are privileged to watch the future of the NHL live and in person several nights a week. I want to see those players go on to play in the League for many years to come and live up to their full potential. Head hits are not a "sit home and take some aspirin and do some physical therapy and we'll see how you are in a few days" injury. They are life threatening, career ending and permanently brain damaging. Whether someone is hit early in their junior career or later when they get to the NHL, if it's hard enough and serious enough, you're done. In the junior league, players are an average of 17 years old. Their lives haven't even started, their dreams haven't been realized and one serious head hit can end it all. Goodbye NHL dreams, hello "would you like fries with that?"

So, if that's not enough for you, think about it this way: As fans, we are also robbed when a player goes down from bumps to the noggin. I want to watch my favorite players play as much as I can, for as long as I can. When somebody goes down due to post-concussion syndrome, especially early in their career, we are left only to wonder how far they could have gone and how much athletic greatness they might have achieved. "Could have, should have, would have" is no way to live life and it's no way to play hockey.

We know whereof we speak: Portland recently had an unfortunate front row seat to this issue when defenseman Eric Doyle went down hard at a Tri-Cities game. Todd Kennedy has been suspended for seven games, but Eric may be out for longer. Why shouldn't Tri-Cities lose their player for as long as we lose ours? At a minimum. But it's still not enough. What if Eric has sustained long-term damage? No punishment will ever fix that. He is up and moving around in the bleachers at recent games, so hopefully he will be alright. In this case, it's also brutal because this is his final season in the WHL and it may well be over.

Here's my suggestion for punishment in the WHL, which I say we test out if we have to play the Tri-City Americans again during the playoffs: If Todd Kennedy shows up on our ice again during the playoffs, I vote for a full scale public shaming in place of the suspension. Instead of kicking him out for seven games, his teammates will be ordered by the WHL to ignore him in the locker room, not speak to him on the bus, not call or text him to see if he wants to hang out in off hours and not share food with him at team dinners for the full duration of the time it takes Eric Doyle to recover. A suspension sends a message to other players that they shouldn't follow his example, but a punishment that sends a message to the offending player he's a coward: priceless.

Next up on 3/12: Section 2, Teams, Players and Equipment. Rule 250, Puck. Rule 260, Measurement of Equipment.

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