Jim Kelley
Thursday March 12th, 2009

"You cannot have a tragedy of that magnitude without looking at things. We're the custodians of the game. We need to reassure the public we are taking it seriously." -- Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke on the death of senior league hockey player Don Sanderson and the rules proposal that came out of the recently concluded GMs meetings.

It is not my intent here to criticize the above statement. I've known Brian Burke for almost as long as he has been in hockey, and I know him to be a caring man who is keenly aware of other people's suffering. He would never make a careless statement that involves the death of a young man and the pain his mother and father will endure for as long as they live. But I truly can't understand how what the NHL's GMs did at their recent gathering will have any impact on what Don's father, Michael Sanderson, wants to see happen in the wake of his son's death.

Michael Sanderson just a month ago told me that he is unequivocally against fighting in hockey and stated for the record that his son, though he engaged in them from time to time, did not endorse it. A longtime coach in various youth leagues for boys and girls, Sanderson said his son "did what he had to do" in terms of protecting teammates or trying to make certain they weren't bullied, but he did so within the rules and, in part, because the rules sometimes are not enforced. Such instances put his teammates at risk and Don Sanderson couldn't allow that to happen.

Michael also said that his son had been raised on the idea that fighting shouldn't be a part of the game, and he knew it, believed it and only fought when there was no other alternative. He has long been an advocate of the idea that the game should be policed by rules, not fighters, and would have gladly articulated that to the GMs had he been invited to speak to them.

Argue the merits of that any way you like, but the bottom line is that the NHL did nothing to address the way Don Sanderson died. To imply that it did, well, that's just wrong.

I thought that if the league did anything in the wake of the Sanderson tragedy it would, at the very least, mandate tighter chin straps. I thought there might be an outside chance they would require players to keep their helmets on at all times. I thought that if they truly went beyond the realm of even the most optimistic expectation, they would adopt some form of the proposal put forth by the NHL Players Association that suggested a series of incremental penalties for blows to the head that would make arenas a safer place for combatants if indeed a fight did happen to break out.

But they didn't propose anything close. What they did do was say they would seek stricter enforcement of the instigator rule and put some mild restrictions on the goons who engage in the so-called "staged fight."

Somehow you thought there might be more from the custodians of the game even if the fast majority likes things just the way they are. Oh, they did dazzle the multitude with numbers, a favorite tactic of the commissioner's office. Gary Bettman never likes to have the media take a "snapshot" of an issue, but he has no problem with producing a stream of numbers to back up a limited argument while ignoring the greater matter at hand.

In numbers brought forth with the sanctity of psalms, the NHL proclaimed some 22 percent of fights fall into the "staged" category where the two participants simply confront each other via mutual consent, drop their gloves, and have at it -- usually right after a faceoff. The figure of 24 percent was cited regarding the number of fights that ensue after a perfectly clean -- or, in NHL parlance, "legal hit"-- that creates a situation where a combatant is forced into a bout simply because an opponent took offense at something that is said to be a part of the game that no one wants to see removed -- except, perhaps, the players who are concussed by the force of a blow.

It all reminds me of the years before the lockout when Bettman produced numbers at the drop of a glove that claimed while the perception might be out there, an increase in fighting was not the case. The league pretty much gave up on that argument after the lockout when fighting started making a comeback that neither video nor a rush of numbers could deny. Now it's all broken down into the two areas that can't mean anything in the wake of the Sanderson tragedy: Staged fights and attempts at beating the senses out of guys who are playing the game the way it is supposed to be played.

So rather than write new rules or even give a nod to protecting players from serious harm and, perhaps, death, the GMs agreed to hand out an extra 10 minutes for goon fights. Never mind that they stop short of a game misconduct, something that would have removed the participants for the remainder of the contest. Apparently it is in the game's best interest to have a fighter tacked onto the end of a bench should his services be needed to extract some unscheduled justice.

They also said they might, at the discretion of the referees who have been calling instigator penalties at the rate of the shrinking Canadian dollar, toss a few more minutes of box time onto players who attack others for no good reason except that the league has forever allowed it.

This is what passes for a social conscience? This is a serious response to death caused by fighting? Ten minutes in the box for players who don't normally play that many in an entire game? A referee's "discretion" as to what exactly is a "staged fight" or what might have been on the mind of someone who has decked an opponent with a fist to the face just for body checking? Would they be on par with the occasional enforcement of the anti-diving edict? Are offenders going to get a letter advising them they are being watched before an actual "staged fight" or "you're being mean" call is meted out?

And since the instigator rule has been on the books for years, exactly how many such penalties have been handed out for initiating a fight after a clean hit? Various published reports indicate the grand total for the season to date has been one.

In what clearly fee;s like déjà vu all over again, Colin Campbell, the league's executive vice president for hockey operations said: "When an illegal hit or check is delivered, we will deal with it, whether it's an official on the ice or with supplemental discipline. Players do not need to deal with it. If they feel they have to deal with it, they should be penalized with the right penalties."

I couldn't agree more with a statement that the law of rules shall be applied, but doesn't that one sound exactly like the edict that was issued earlier this season, the one that said blows to the head, especially by repeat offenders, would be treated harshly? That "crackdown" has let some repeat offenders off with fines instead of suspensions. For those who have been suspended, the bans were in the three-to-five game range, down from the 15-, 20-, 25-gamers that were handed out just a season ago.

This is what the "custodians of the game" consider to be "serious" change.

What happened to all that talk about reshaping the rules of engagement? Where is the helmet-on mandate or even a suggestion that cinching up the chin strap just might save a life?

From where this is being typed, it very much appears that the league has positioned the NHLPA to end up as the fall guys. Executive Director Paul Kelly may have already walked through that trap door when he was quoted as saying that the PA would have a role in the penalty-minute debate because the potential of added minutes for fighters could be seen as having an impact on jobs, and that would be an affront to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Wouldn't the owners love to pin their pull-back from minimalist proposals on the players union because it wouldn't let them rewrite the rule book? That would be the best laugh they've had since the PA forced Bob Goodenow out of the head office.

Burke was right when he said, "You can't have a tragedy of this magnitude without looking at these things." He must have chosen those words carefully, because looking and doing are two different things and in regards the legacy of Don Sanderson, the general managers chose to look the other way.

Seriously. If there is a tragedy here, doing next to nothing heads the list.

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