Players must adapt to control the increasing epidemic of reckless hits
Maybe at first, you chalk it up to early-season sloppiness. You blame it on the players re-acclimating to the pace of the game, the speed and feel of NHL hockey. Maybe they've forgotten where the lines have been drawn, what the consequences are. You expect it all to slow down quickly, for players to readapt to the rules of the game, but what happens when it doesn't? What happens when it all just doesn't stop?
It's been three weeks since the NHL regular season began -- six weeks since players returned to game-pace hockey -- and yet, when it's come to dangerous hits on the ice, it hasn't gotten better in time. Every other night, it seems, there's a new questionable hit, another player being helped off the ice, a head knocked senseless and retaliation flying from fists.
For a league that purports that "head hits are a matter of great concern to the League and the Players and... violations of Rule 48 [illegal check to the head] are among the most serious Playing Rule infractions in the game," as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman explained in his judgment to uphold Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta's 10-game suspension, what's been happening this season is nothing short of unacceptable. After 138 games so far, the league has doled out eight suspensions, including one to Sabres forward John Scott who blindsided Boston forward Loui Eriksson in the head Wednesday night. They've also fined two others.
And so far, the pace of recklessness has been steady. Frans Nielsen and Brad Stuart were disciplined for incidents on Oct. 8; Kaleta and Alex Edler for games on Oct. 10. Jason Chimera was fined for a game on Oct. 14; Maxim Lapierre for a hit on Oct. 15. Cody McLeod's hit on Niklas Kronwall, who suffered a concussion, was laid on Oct. 17. Michael Grabner's hit on Nathan Gerbe came Oct. 19. Ryan Garbutt laid out Dustin Penner on Oct. 20, and Scott's blindside of Eriksson came on Oct. 23.
It amounts to an uneasy stream of devastation, and the injuries have followed naturally. Already this season, there have been six reported concussions and four other "head" or "upper body" injuries coming from high hits. Gary Loewen of Postmedia News reported that the NHL has seen a 30 percent uptick in concussions or apparent concussions this season, as compared to a rate of 5.23 per 100 games published in an NHL study released last July. Though this season's number isn't official and there is a chance the rate could decrease and level out as the year progresses, it is still alarming to see any upward trend in head injuries.
For its part, the NHL's Player Safety department is trying to make it clear that hits to the head are unacceptable. Bettman upheld Kaleta's 10-game suspension Thursday, and Scott is expected to earn a hefty slap on the wrist for his hit as well. But is forfeited salary and suspension enough? For a player like Scott, who hasn't scored a goal since 2009 and has averaged about seven minutes per game in his six-year career, is a suspension really enough? If he's banned for 10 games, he still stands to make more than $650,000 this season.
"I don't think [the punishments are] enough," Selanne told reporters in Montreal Thursday. "The next night, the same thing happens."
What if the league decided a suspended player cannot be replaced on a roster? So if while Kaleta is suspended, the Sabres would be forced to dress 19; if both he and Scott are suspended, the team dresses 18 until their suspensions were over. Hockey players always talk about accountability and putting the team first. Maybe if making a bonehead hit means punishing those they're meant to protect, they would think twice before hurting another person or their team. I think this idea's been out there before; perhaps it's worth thinking about again.
It's disappointing, though, that much of the discussion regarding these hits has to center on punishment and not a thought or culture change from within. Often, NHL players talk about the importance of adaptation in the game. Why didn't the rules changes after the 2004-05 lockout forever improve scoring? "We adapted," they say. What if goalie equipment shrinks? "We can adapt." Hybrid icing? Less obstruction? New divisions? "We'll adapt." Kaleta claimed he "tried ducking out of the check," at his discipline hearing, but as VP of player safety and Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan noted, "Players of NHL caliber have that ability [to avoid the check]."
So then why can't some of these players adapt to this? A rule against headshots has been in place in some form since 2010-11. So why can't they stop themselves from picking off heads? I concede that hockey is a fast and rough game, and some awful hits are going to be unavoidable. But those instances should be rare, not a once-a-week occurrence. If players are really as good at adapting as they claim, then now it's up to them to adapt to this. Either take the body or abort -- for the betterment of the game and their fellow man.