So it has come to this.
The NHL has deemed it its responsibility to legislate respect into the game.
It has been a long road to this point, and we could look at how they arrived at this decision or we could look at the best ways of solving it.
On Wednesday at the NHL GM’s meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., it was agreed upon by the league’s general managers to put forth a rule that would penalize blind-side head shots.
“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,” the proposed rule reads.
In its current format, the rule is completely ambiguous and awkwardly worded but in short it is saying “We are tired of players like Matt Cooke taking unnecessary headshots at defenceless players.”
I single out Matt Cooke because he is the latest to knock out one of the game’s stars — Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard — with a deliberate hit to the head, although under the rules he cannot be reprimanded. The proposed rule still needs to be approved by the NHL’s competition committee before it is ratified.
This hit was different than Mike Richards’ hit on David Booth that I defended in an earlier column. With this hit, there was no attempt made to hit the body, Cooke caught him from the blind side and targeted Savard’s head.
If the league wants to get rid of these hits, I welcome it, but good luck.
It is much more complicated than just inserting a rule at the highest pro level or, as some would suggest, doing away with the instigator rule.
The process has to start much earlier than the NHL or even junior level, however.
It has got to start at the minor hockey level, where respect among players has to be preached at the same intensity as skill development.
Players like Cooke or Nashville’s Jordan Tootoo or Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie didn’t suddenly hit the NHL and become known for their cheap shots. I can almost guarantee you could look back to their minor hockey days and find a long trail of cheap shots or players laid to waste by them.
It is part of the culture of minor hockey.
While my final year of minor hockey was 10 years ago, I played for a number of coaches who may not have been sitting there saying “take out their top player by any means necessary,” but it certainly wasn’t discouraged.
And if you did throw a big hit, regardless of how dirty it was, you were usually met with an “atta boy” or pat on the back when you got back to the bench.
One of my best friends prided himself on getting away with cheap shots.
And it’s not like I played for an overtly dirty team, there were plenty of them and we were far from the worst.
I have suffered six concussions in my life, five of them from hockey, three at the end of extremely dirty plays — a baseball swing that made Marty McSorely’s exchange with Donald Brashear look like a sacrifice bunt; I got jumped by a goalie and fed his blocker, and I got cross-checked over the head. Those first two were in peewee hockey, the third in midget and effectively ended my hockey playing days.
I know it’s not just an Eastern Alberta thing either.
There was a lawsuit in January in Toronto where a family was suing the Greater Toronto Hockey League and the Mississauga Senators of the GTHL as well as the family of a 15-year-old on that team for $700,000. Why? Because the 15-year-old allegedly drilled their son, Elliot Park, from behind into the boards, ending his hockey career, any chance at a hockey scholarship, and causing him pain, suffering, etc., in a 2008 game. He was left with a major concussion and lacerations to the head.
The kicker was, this wasn’t just some random event where the defendant got a little over zealous. No. This was the 11th time the player had been written up for such an offence. And on top of that, his indefinite suspension this time was over turned by the GTHL upon appeal.
The offending boy’s father offered a statement of defence to the Toronto Star, denying the check circumvented the GTHL’s rules.
“A physical style of game, which inevitably attracts penalties, have an important role in the game of hockey and are highly valued at all competitive levels, including the National Hockey League,” says the statement.
All I can do is shake my head if he can’t see the difference between what is acceptable and what his son is accused of doing.
The case likely has played a part in the GTHL stepping up their enforcement of penalties and hits to the head starting next season.
But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the changes need to take place if respect is to be brought back into the game.
Respect, like intelligence or common sense, cannot be legislated by the NHL.