NHL Suspension Policy Does Half the Job

When Colin Campbell handed down Tom Kostopoulos' six-game suspension yesterday, he matched the longest suspension of the year to-date (he also gave Rick Rypien six for grabbing a Minnesota Wild fan).  From there, the online discussion has shifted from whether the suspension was long enough or too severe to whether Kostopoulos actually broke Rule 48, and finally to where the league's suspension policy goes from here.

First, to clear up a misconception held by both Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy and Dirk Hoag at On the Forecheck, this hit absolutely violated rule 48, which reads:

48.1 Illegal Check to the Head- A lateral OR blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted.    

While Colin Campbell's statement included a line that the hit was not from the blindside, I contend it absolutely was a lateral hit.  See the emphasis added on the word "or"?  The hit needs to be either lateral or blindside, not both, in order to qualify as a violation of the league's new head shot rule.  Both Wyshynski and Hoag go on to make good points in both of their articles regarding how the policy is broken, relying more on how much media attention a hit gets and how much damage it does than it relies on how much the suspensions are supposed to prevent these hits in the first place.  But, it's important that we call this consistently.

The point of the rule is to eliminate dangerous head-hunting hits without taking the physicality out of the game.  Suspensions are supposed to work not only as after-the-fact punishment, but also to deter similar hits in the future.  When the league spokesman states that punishments are indeed partially dictated by the damage inflicted by the hit in question, he is saying that there is no intent at deterrence of the act.  This boils down to a tacit admission that the league wants people playing up to the line, but not crossing it.  A truly deterrent policy, for instance one that would increase the length of suspension each time a similar hit happens, regardless of players' past history would prevent players from approaching the line between what constitutes a good, clean check and what constitutes a suspension.

For instance, Let's keep calling this a Rule 48 violation (because it is).  This would be the fourth suspension of the season for a lateral or blindside hit where the head is either the target or the principal point of contact.  The way the suspensions have worked so far is as such:

October 18th: Shane Doan blindsides Dan Sexton in the head, gets 3 games.
November 5th: Joe Thornton blindsides David Perron, gets 2 games.
December 19th: Matt Martin blindsides Vernon Fiddler, gets 2 games.
January 9th: Tom Kostopoulos hits Brad Stuart laterally to the head, gets 6 games.

The league had a fantastic opportunity to take a step towards real deterrence here that they let up on.  It seems as though the only reason the Flames player got so many games is because of the early fully-known extent to Brad Stuart's injuries.  Dan Sexton and Vernon Fiddler were victims of these types of hits who did not miss significant time as a result (although Dan Sexton has been snakebitten by several injuries this season).  David Perron has not played since Joe Thornton's hit on him, but that's due to a concussion.  Since there is no widely-accepted timetable for return from a concussion (and because of other factors, not the least of which being Thornton's star status in San Jose), Thornton only got two games.  If you want a truly deterrent policy, perhaps the ledger should look something like this:

October 18th: Shane Doan hits Dan Sexton - Gets 5 games.
November 5th: Joe Thornton hits David Perron - Gets 8 games.
December 19th: Matt Martin hits Vernon Fidller - Gets 13 games.
January 9th: Tom Kostopoulos hits Brad Stuart - Gets 20 games.
(Future): Goon-to-Be-Named hits Unsuspecting Victim - Gets half a season.

If the NHL really wanted to eliminate lateral or blindside headshots, they should begin punishing on the history of the hit rather than the history of the player or the severity of the injury.  Nobody is going to feel particularly bad for the fifth guy in a season to run afoul of rule 48 if he knows exactly how severe his penalty is going to be going into the hearing, even if he is a squeaky-clean angel.  If he were that clean, he wouldn't find himself in a hearing to decide whether or not he had intended to blindside a guy in the head.  The way the current system works, the league goes only halfway to solving the problem.  There should be punishment for these hits, but without deterrence, they're sending a message that there is merely a specific price to be paid for them.  For some players looking to make their mark as a tough guy, two games is more of a badge of honor than a punishment and the salary lost is but a small price to pay to show GMs that you have the kind of truculence they're looking to add to a lineup.

Of course, if the concept of "collective bargaining" is to be believed,  the NHL does work as a partnership with its players (the exactly extent of the "partnership" is completely debatable, but a separate argument to be had later).  Through all of the talk of how Campbell's policies show no consistency, what we've perhaps overlooked is that the only people asking the league to go the other half of the way towards actively deterring these hits is the fans and the media.  The second half of the partnership stands eerily quiet as far as it comes to doing what it takes to prevent headshots from ending careers and possibly lives.  I strongly suggest you read Mike Chen's piece at From the Rink regarding how the NHLPA needs to start changing the culture towards ending this.  The NHL currently goes only halfway towards addressing the issue, it's time to start looking at the NHLPA to take the other half to end these hits.

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