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Armstrong suspension proves NHL system is flawed

It’s becoming such the norm around the hockey universe that it’s become exceedingly tiresome to get involved in. Endless debates about whether a hit or play merits further discipline by the NHL has become the story of the 2009-10 NHL season, and the fact that these debates continuously rage proves that the current system is flawed.

The running joke surrounds the NHL’s “Wheel of Justice”, playing up the arbitrary manner in which Colin Campbell hands out suspensions. If you want an incredibly (and scary) accurate portrayal of just how the messed up the NHL suspension system is, go no further that Down Goes Brown’s NHL Suspension Flow Chart.

The latest such example of the disparity in opinions surrounds the Colby Armstrong two-game suspension for his flying forearm into the face of Washington’s Mathieu Perreault. To some -- like myself -- the hit is immediately worthy of suspension. Yet others, such as Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski, feel that the play was worthy of perhaps a four-minute roughing penalty and nothing more. He also notes that the difference in opinion surrounding these plays is what makes the suspensions so suspect.

The point is that blogs, fans, coaches, players involved and referees all viewed the play in different ways; which is a reminder the entire Wheel of Justice concept in the NHL is as much due to the bewildering nature of hockey plays as it is Colin Campbell’s inconsistency and the NHL’s ineptitude. OK, maybe it’s like 30 percent bewildering nature of hockey plays and 70 percent NHL ineptitude, on second thought.

Greg mentions that the fact that the NHL doesn’t have a clear and all-encompassing “head shot rule” makes this hit debatable and leads to questions about the NHL’s decision to hand down a suspension.

Dismissing the fact that it was a clear hand/forearm/elbow to Perreault’s face, the fact that there was no penalty handed out for the hit itself is what raises the biggest red flag. We know that NHL has decided -- at the very last minute -- that it can suspend players for blind sided hits to the head while in-game penalties don’t apply. But what about straight-on elbows? Did the on-ice officials just miss the call, or did they decide that it wasn’t an elbow and the hit was more about Perreault trying to dodge than Armstrong laying out a dirty hit?

In either case, the inconsistencies between the on-ice calls and the NHL’s decisions is what makes the system such a joke. Writers and bloggers can debate the hits all they want, but when the actual NHL officials don’t seem to agree is when it become much more questionable.

Whatever your views on this particular hit might be, Armstrong’s response to the suspension this afternoon is what is most intriguing. Per Chris Vivlamore of the AJC Thrashers Blog:

“I reached across with my right arm. I just tried to get a piece of him. It happened the way it happened. By no means did I mean to hit him high. I’ve always been a guy that with my hits my arms are down. I hit with my shoulder. I keep my arms in and try to hit the way I’m supposed to. This one time, I got caught in a head-to-head going at him and he gave me a couple moves and I just tried to get a piece of him and I paid the price.”

Armstrong is known for his ability to lay out big open ice hits, and it was obvious he made a mistake here. That he admits to playing the hit wrong is perhaps most telling; like Ovechkin’s hit on Campbell, it wasn’t that it was overtly dirty play is that it was a dangerous and reckless one.

The NHL says it’s serious about cutting down on head shots, yet refused to years ago to outright ban all such hits. Now it’s starting to come down hard on borderline hits in the face of public scrutiny.

Until the NHL decides to actually be proactive in these matters, the league will forever be a joke when it comes to supplementary discipline.