Monday February 7th, 2011

Being sent off for four games, as Boston's Daniel Paille has been, for a headshot hurts a player's wallet, but the NHLPA must know the cost of a concussion is greater. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Joe Haggerty of Comcast Sportsnet New England broke the story on Sunday that the Bruins will shut down Marc Savard for the season after the "moderate concussion" (as if there is such a thing) the center suffered last month. The speculation will now begin on whether Savard's career is or should be at an end.

But a larger discussion that somewhat faded in recent months should be revived: At what point will the NHL put some real teeth into the wrist-slapping suspensions it issues when a player blindsides an opponent with a check that targets the head?

That question must be raised in light of the report by Larry Brooks of The New York Post on Sunday that the NHL Players Association only agreed to the passage of Rule 48 with the proviso that suspensions be kept to a minimum.

The NHLPA has, in the past, been the leader in the headshot discussion. Under former executive director Paul Kelly, the PA advocated for the end to hits to the heads of vulnerable players and made a presentation of its case that was not favorably received by NHL GMs in March 2009 -- although sources say Kelly lacked specifics of the kind he laid out for the media prior to his appearance. In any case, the GM's reversed field and proposed what eventually became Rule 48 a year later.

How sad that a group that was once in the vanguard of this movement actually held back strong measures to prevent serious injuries.

The league may have evidence that the two-, three-, four-, five- and six-game bans it has issued, like the one it handed down last Friday to the Bruins' Dan Paille (four) for his hit on Dallas' Raymond Sawada (video), has helped make players avoid such hits and reduced the number of incidents. But there wasn't enough of a deterrent to Paille, and there won't be for the next player who violates Rule 48 or otherwise targets an opponent's head, like the Rangers' Brian Boyle did on Saturday to Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek....

...which, despite CBC's Craig Simpson's characterization, is not "coincidental contact." No penalty was called on the play (elbowing would have been more appropriate than Rule 48) and there are no indications that any supplementary discipline is forthcoming.

Sports Illustrated's Pierre McGuire, who gets as close to NHL action as anyone when announcing from rinkside for NBC and TSN, was asked about the Boyle hit this morning on Ottawa radio Team 1200 and he wondered if the Ranger defenseman would be suspended because he has no previous headshots on his record. McGuire decried the inconsistency in the headshot rulings and added, "There's got to be something that happens that gets the attention of these players and I don't know what that is. They had a chance to do something with Danny Paille, which was clearly...a malicious play and a predatory play and they gave him four games."

McGuire, who has long been an advocate for stronger measures against hits to the head admitted that he was frustrated by the league's response to the issue. "You get to the point where you talk so much about it over the last 10 to 12 years; you knew it was an issue because you're down there all the time, yet it seems to have not really caught the attention of the decision makers in the league."

Wouldn't a 10-game ban, or a 15-game ban send the message far more strongly? Of course it would.

No one in hockey's establishment seems to want that, however. The GMs don't want to lose their players for extended periods, nor do the coaches. The agents, who lose their percentage of the suspended player's salary -- it all goes into the NHL Player Emergency Fund -- won't be putting up a united front calling for longer suspensions, either. And the players themselves don't want to lose playing time or the money that goes with it.

We're not talking about just individual players, but the NHLPA. As Brooks reported, the PA only agreed to approve the offseason passage of Rule 48 "on the condition that VP Colin Campbell not impose what the players referred to as 'super suspensions,' for those guilty of coming laterally to apply blindside hits to the head."

Those who have criticized the length of suspensions -- this blogger included -- faulted the GMs and the league's Hockey Operations department, but, as Brooks characterizes them, the players have to be considered "co-conspirators."

"We can only surmise the players have taken this stance because they are more concerned with protecting their brethren's pocketbooks than they are with protecting their brains," Brooks wrote. "They are more concerned with players avoiding the loss of pay that would become substantial under double-digit suspensions than they are with ensuring players don't lose their cognitive ability."

And Brooks goes on to say that this will be a test of Donald Fehr's leadership of the NHLPA, pointing out that when Fehr led the Major League Baseball Players Association, that union campaigned against mandatory testing for performance enhancing drugs because, as Brooks (who has also covered baseball) writes, they helped inflate power hitting numbers which led to larger contracts.

Fehr's response to those allegations, according to's Tom Verducci, has been that he did not know the extent of baseball's steroids problem until it was too late, although Verducci wrote in 2009 that Fehr had been alerted to the problem as early as 1998. Last month, Fehr declined to discuss the PED matter further with Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times.

Fehr is still feeling his way through the NHL in the early stages of his tenure as executive director, and his response when asked by Klein about headshots reflected concern but no commitment to change apart from what will be recommended by those charged with studying the issue.

Fehr recognizes that he gets his mandate from the players, but he is also a strong and bright leader who will sift through all the relevant data and take the temperature of his constituents before making a more definitive statement. He may urge his members to go in one direction or the other, or he may leave it entirely to them.

When Andrew Ference spoke out against Paille last week for his hit on Sawada, making a courageous effort not to be hypocritical on the matter, it was an indication that players are still concerned about the issue -- although public criticism of a teammate is bound to cause friction within a team, especially -- as Bob McKenzie mentioned this morning on Montreal radio Team 990 -- when it comes prior to the NHL's ruling on the hit.

So the question remains: Will the players some day take a stronger stance on headshots and urge the NHL to do so as well, or will the wristslaps -- and the headshots -- continue?

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