“We’ve got to protect players from themselves,” Anderson said, “and we’re going to move aggressively to do so. On Sunday, I felt profoundly disturbed. We’ve got to hold our players to a higher accountability and get them to understand that they may be facing a suspension, and not only a fine, for some of these hits we’re seeing.”
The quote above is from an interview with NFL discipline czar Ray Anderson by Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King. Ray Anderson is essentially the equivalent of the NHL’s Colin Campbell.
Last week at HockeyIndependent.com, there was a healthy discussion that began with Mark Willoughby’s column about the culture of hockey. It continued with Al Cimaglia’s follow up article in which he put the primary responsibility of changing that culture on the players themselves. I respectfully disagreed with Al then and still do. Often in my arguments, I cited the policies of the NFL. Unfortunately, we all got to witness those policies in action this week.
Ultimately, the NFL chose not to suspend any of those players. In this case, I believe they made the right choice to not suspend as that would have been an immediate departure from precedent without warning (Peter King seems to disagree). My assumption, however, is that the warning has now been given. Subsequent hits like this will likely merit suspension instead of, or in addition to, fines. The fines themselves are pretty noteworthy too. James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was fined $75,000. I can’t remember the last time the NHL handed down a fine that significant to a player. Keep in mind that the NFL is a league with a similar minimum salary and non-guaranteed contracts. It’s fair to note here that the NHL is limited to a maximum fine of $2,500 for “on-ice discipline” (Article 18.3, part A of the CBA).
Even if the NHL could impose larger fines, would they even work? Consider this article from former NFL player Jim Trotter (also with Sports Illustrated).
“Rodney Harrison disclosed that he used to set aside $50,000 before the start of each season to pay fines for big hits. In his mind, it was the cost of doing business; receivers had to know there was a price to be paid for trespassing.”
“Harrison, the NBC analyst who played 15 seasons as a safety with the Chargers and Patriots, received more than $200,000 in fines through the early 2000s but still refused to change his hard-hitting style. It wasn’t until the league suspended him for a game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jerry Rice that he reprogrammed his ways. Look for more players to face the same situation the rest of the year.”
There’s one other quote from Jim’s article that really hits home for me.
“The players have become too big and fast, the collisions too violent. Linebackers are the size of defensive linemen from two decades ago, and safeties are as large as linebackers used to be.”
Looking at the NHL side of the issue, Kerry Fraser has criticized the “culture of hockey” and to suggest banning all hits to the head.
When you look at the NFL and NHL from the aspect of the physical violence involved in playing the sport, those two leagues are by far the most violent of the major professional team sports. Yet, when things go too far one sees two very different sets of actions by the leagues.
While both are experiencing nearly the same problems- too many violent and borderline hits causing way too many concussions, the NFL appears to be aggressively attacking the problem. The NHL appears to be doing very little about the issue. Why?
Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated provides some insight that I think explains the issue. In his column ranking the NFL coaches as players, he points out something fascinating about the NFL coaches and managers that’s different from every other league. The NFL has very few coaches and managers that played the game at a high level. In essence, a major complaint about Gary Bettman not being a hockey guy is actually the norm in the NFL (to a certain degree). Outside of Bettman and Bill Daly, however, a significant number of the NHL coaches, general managers, and league office are former players or longtime members of the current hockey culture- including discipline czar Colin Campbell.
Taking that into context, it makes total sense as to why these general managers seem so unwilling to change the rules of the game today to be different than when they played- even though they acknowledge that the game has changed anyway due to the players being bigger, stronger, and faster now. I understand it, but I don’t agree or condone it.
It’s time for the general managers in the NHL and the League to grow up and realize that they have to be the ones to protect the players from themselves and, by doing so, protect the best interests of the League. It’s in no one’s best interests to see a player be sidelined for a significant stretch of time due to another player having a moment of idiocy on the ice (for examples: Richards on Booth, Cooke on Savard, Ovechkin on Campbell, Backstrom on Goc, etc., etc., etc.).
It’s time to abandon this notion that the NHL should pass off its responsibilities of leading from the top down to the developmental leagues (love you Puck Daddy, but I have to disagree). Like it or not, the NHL is the leader in defining how the game of hockey is played in North America. These kids dream of making it to the NHL, not the AHL. They model their style on their favorite players in the NHL. The NHL or its teams are often involved with the local developmental leagues. If a player shows enough talent to have a chance of making to the NHL, he’s likely playing for a coach or manager that will teach him that to make the NHL, he has to be willing to occasionally play like an idiot and hit players while they are in a vulnerable position in order to help his team and hurt the opposition.
It’s time to abandon this notion that outlawing hits to the head of any kind will greatly change the way hockey is played. It’s already outlawed in several leagues and has been for a while with no ill effects. The fans will miss a superstar player that’s forced to retire early (or worse) a hell of a lot more than they will miss seeing a stretcher come out on the ice.
Gary, it’s time for you to use the powers granted to you by the CBA to protect your players and your League. Forget the measly fines of $2,500 and move on to suspensions- with fair warning. Set precedents and standards and then adhere to them. Make them significant. A one game suspension in the NFL roughly equates to a five game suspension in the NHL. I like the sound of that. That’s not too harsh, yet provides a better sting than one game out of 82.
It’s time to see the vast majority of headlines revolve around the latest spectacular save or the latest amazing goal. I’m tired of hearing about the suspensions, injuries and concussions due to reckless play. They never seem to stop. The Canadian and American media can never agree on anything regarding hockey except that the NHL League Office seems to operate a “wheel of justice” that is completely devoid of standards and common sense.
Gary, it’s time to be the steward of the game that the Commissioner of the National Hockey League is supposed to be. It may not be popular, but I don’t think that bothers you. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do. As Ray Anderson of the NFL told Peter King, “we’ve got to protect players from themselves.”
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About the Author: Nashville Predators Blogger, Software Engineer (C#.NET), Novice Woodworker, Southern Cook, Husband, Father of Two. You may contact me at David.R.Singleton AT gmail.com.