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Too little, too late for NHL rule changes

Image (1) Savard-thumb-250x166-7010.jpg for post 229

This is obviously the biggest story of the week and when all is said and done the 2009-10 NHL season will go down as the “year of the head shot”.

What is most frustrating about the entire situation is the fact that the victim of the latest dirty hit -- and there’s no doubt in my mind it was dirty, I don’t care what the NHL says -- is at home and is still suffering from some significant concussion symptoms.

At least there were some steps taken in the right direction this week with the GM’s proposing a rule change that would make hits like Matt Cooke’s illegal. What’s most disturbing however is the fact that all hits to the head will still not be penalized -- but you have to wonder just how far the NHL can go down that path.

There’s no doubt that the NHL is an extremely fast and physical league and that hits to the head will happen, and not all of them are dirty hits. Sometimes accidents happen and player are going to get seriously hurt, no matter what the NHL does.

But the point here isn’t to just blindly outlaw all high hits; we’re talking about protecting NHL players from the ones that have no regard for their opponents on the ice. It’s ice hockey, I realize that the point of the game is not only score but to punish the players on the other team with brutal checks along the boards and in open ice. My point is that there exists a middle ground where the league can protect players from serious injury while maintaining the physicality that makes the sport so much fun.

Marc Savard will most likely not return to the ice this season. He’s sleeping most of the day, and it’s going to take him a long time to recover from such a severe concussion. I’m not someone who believes that the offending players should be suspended for as long as the victim is injured -- there are just too many variables involved -- but the fact that Matt Cooke escaped without punishment is a travesty.

The NHL is facing a PR nightmare over this incident but the sad truth there is nothing they could do about this latest hit. Technically, Cooke’s hit was legal in the eyes of the NHL and the fact that Mike Richards was not suspended for a similar hit earlier in the season handcuffed the NHL on what they could do.

So now we have the league being reactionary instead of proactive when it comes to the safety of the players, and it’s making the NHL appear even more middling than they were before. This is a league that has struggled with mainstream success ever since the lockout five years ago and these incidents do nothing but set the NHL back from whatever progress they may have made.

There is an irrational fear that supporters of stricter rules and punishments -- like myself -- want to turn the NHL into a sport that is “un-manly” or “wimpy” and abandons the physicality that sets it apart from all others. That’s not anywhere close to being the case; in fact, I loved good physical lockdown hockey where goals were at a premium and there wasn’t a penalty called every 4 minutes for touching an opponent with your stick.

The issue at hand is the safety of the players. The cold reality is that players are faster, bigger and carry more power than ever before and you can’t deny the increased amount of serious head injuries is alarming.

The NHL is on the right track, but we shouldn’t have had to wait for one of the NHL’s best players to be sitting at home with a severe concussion before anything was done about it.