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Time to crack down on headhunters

It was just over three weeks ago that Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ryan Hollwegknocked out St. Louis's Alex Pietrangelo with a hit from behind that concussed the Blues defenseman and earned Hollweg a measly three-game suspension for his third noteworthy hit-from-behind in a calendar year.

It was Tuesday, Oct. 28, when Vinny Lecavalier, the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, chose to speak out about it.

Coincidence? Hardly.

Lecavalier, who doesn't know Hollweg except by reputation and has never had an incident or altercation with him, waited until he arrived in Toronto, the perceived center of the hockey universe, to speak his mind.

"Everybody knows when he's on the ice what to expect," Lecavalier told the assembled media prior to the Lightning engaging the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. "Hollweg has done it many times. He's a dirty player, he doesn't respect anybody. I don't know how he is off the ice, but on the ice guys don't respect guys like that. You can play hard, but you don't have to hit a guy from behind."

The importance of this statement -- "He's a dirty player, he doesn't respect anybody" -- can't be overstated. Finally, a legitimate NHL star was calling out a head-hunter for exactly what he is: "a dirty player."

I've long maintained that just stepping onto the ice for an NHL game takes a great deal of courage given the high costs associated with the game's physical play. I'll also argue that what Lecavalier did in Toronto took an equal and perhaps even greater amount of the right stuff.

Hollweg has no redeeming qualities as a hockey player. He's not known as a goalscorer, a defensive maven, a faceoff expert or even a character guy in the room. He's a hitter and his reputation around the NHL is that of a one who hits from behind; intentionally and with little to no regard for the consequences.

Check the stats: In the first four years of his NHL career, Hollweg contributed a grand total of 12 points, a plus-minus figure of minus-26, and 326 penalty minutes. In his four games with the Leafs to date (he's missed six via two three-game suspensions for hitting from behind, once in the preseason with another Blues player, Jay McKee, and again just days into the regular season with Pietrangelo). As of Oct. 30, Hollweg had no goals and no assists and is a minus four with 15 penalty minutes this season.

If you don't know him as a Leaf, think of Hollweg as a member of the New York Rangers with whom he became infamous for running Chris Simon from behind in March 2007. Hollweg's actions prompted Simon to level him with a baseball-like swing of his stick that resulted in Simon getting 25 games to life (seemingly) for his equally irresponsible act. Hollweg's hit from behind? Not even one-game.

Now back to Lecavalier, who went on to say that the hit from behind is the most dangerous play in hockey (though a view of recent tapes might make the case for reaching for the puck in open ice with your head down). Lecavalier also said of Hollweg, "He's the guy if you have your head down; he's going to come to try to get you. It happens every game. Never to me, but you see it on the highlights.

"I'm sure he wants to stay on the team. At a certain point, I'm sure he's useful to his team. Everyone wants a guy who plays hard, but hitting from behind isn't right. The last few times I've seen him do it, he had time to stop and he didn't. Those are the type of incidents guys should get more games for."

Memo to NHL Prefect of Discipline Colin Campbell: three is hardly a deterrent.

Lecavalier is not alone in his thinking. Campbell did some remarkable things last season, taking it upon himself to significantly up the penalty with suspensions of 20 (Steve Downie) and 25 games (Jesse Boulerice) for the kind of hits that almost everyone agrees have no place in the game. But just as suddenly as the games-total rose, they have now fallen and that hasn't gone unnoticed by people like Lecavalier, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford and a chorus of others.

Rutherford, after witnessing a clean (under the rules) but dangerous and debilitating blow to the head of one of his young forwards, Brandon Sutter, told TSN's Bob McKenzie: "The league should at least stop saying it's concerned with hits to the head, because it's not. I've had four players -- Erik Cole, Trevor Letowski, Matt Cullen and now Brandon Sutter -- get badly injured on hits to the head, and only one of the guys who hit them was suspended. I realize there are only two ways you can go on this. Either you have a penalty for head-checking, like they do in the Ontario Hockey League, or you don't, and we don't in the NHL and I understand that and that's fine, I guess, but don't tell anyone you care about protecting the players' heads, because it's not happening."

Rutherford can expect a fine for that rant, but he's not wrong and he's not alone. His comments were echoed by Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau, who also took on the league and is likely to be reprimanded for his remarks.

"I don't think we want it to become a soft league," Carbonneau told Montreal reporters. "But times have changed, guys are bigger, stronger and faster, the equipment is better and we need to look at where we're going, you know? We've had three of these big hits in the last 10 days, and all I've heard is that the three guys that did the hit, 'Well, he's not that kind of guy, he's a good guy, he doesn't usually hit that way.' Well ... if the guy is a bad guy, now he's going to get suspended and because a guy is a good guy and he doesn't do that usually, now we're not suspending him? You know, it makes no sense.

Carbonneau also appeared to take on the "you-get-what-you-deserve" school of thoughtlessness that has permeated the NHL for decades.

"I don't know if it has to be black and white but we have to do something...." he said. "I laugh because I hear people say, 'Well, his head was down.' He didn't have the puck. I don't know if you guys play hockey, but it's really hard to play hockey without putting your head down at one point; because usually the puck is on the ice."

I have a theory that Campbell took his hard stand last season at least in part because he is a father and has a son, Greg, playing in the league with the Florida Panthers. I would also argue that he was reversed by the powers-that-be in the NHL who constantly argue to "keep a certain physicality" in the game.

But Brent Sutter, coach of the New Jersey Devils and a member of the rock-hard clan of six brothers who played in the NHL, is also a father. It was his son who was felled by Doug Weight of the Islanders and he gets the last word:

"It was a hard hit, a legal hit," Sutter said about the blow that put his son in the hospital for an overnight stay, "but something has to be done about players being hit in the head while in a vulnerable position. People may say I'm old-school. The game today is better in a lot of areas. But in some areas, it's not and it's troublesome. There is a lack of respect for opponents'players. It's the way the game is played today, and there are significant injuries. It is what it is."

The upside of all this: People who never before spoke out are doing so now. Lecavalier is just the latest good man to put his name to the list, and he chose a big town with a big stage and a big head-hunter on an opposing roster as the time and place to do it. In today's NHL, it takes a certain amount of courage do to that.

Vinny Lecavalier doesn't just need to be heard, he needs to be applauded.

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