By Pierre LeBrun, THE CANADIAN PRESS
The NHL has found some 700-plus allies in its promise to crack down on head-hunting.
Players around the league have roundly applauded hefty suspensions to Philadelphia Flyers forwards Steve Downie and Jesse Boulerice this season.
The message is clear: hits to the head will no longer be tolerated.
"That kind of stuff is crazy," said veteran winger Mark Recchi. "That’s stuff that doesn’t belong in the game. We’re a sport that allows fighting and you can vent your frustration by a fight if you want, but it’s a clean, hard game and that stuff doesn’t belong.
"I think (NHL disciplinarian) Colin Campbell has done the right thing."
"Hopefully it’s going to send a message and if not, some guys will have to face the punishment," echoed Pittsburgh Penguins teammate and superstar centre Sidney Crosby.
"It’s terrible for the game," he added.
Said Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard: "I’m 100 per cent with the league on those suspensions. I just think there’s no room for it."
Veteran Carolina Hurricanes centre Rod Brind’Amour is also on board. He says the only way to stop hits to the head is "to bring the hammer down.
"The league’s probably long overdue, with the way they’ve reacted to things over the years."
Downie got 20 games for launching himself in the air with a late hit directed at Ottawa Senators forward Dean McAmmond’s head during a pre-season game last month. Boulerice got 25 games last week for cross-checking Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler in the face.
"I like the way the league has responded to most of these incidents," said Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin. "I think there should be hard punishment. Because hits to the head are very dangerous. Keep suspending guys who are doing that too much and hopefully we’ll get that out of our game."
The players’ outspokeness is a new development. The old way would be to settle scores on the ice — although that’s still not totally dead. In the past, aside from the players involved in the incident, players from other teams around the league would often be reticent to talk publicly about such matters.
But things are changing. The stakes are too high.
"I think that all players in the National Hockey League understand that," said Minnesota Wild forward Brian Rolston. "And that’s why we’re outspoken about shots to the head like that. It just can’t happen."
More education on the subject of head injuries is what’s fuelling the players’ outrage.
"Guys know more of what blows to the head can do to them. I think it scares some guys," said Kesler. "That guy (Boulerice) could have ended my career last week. I was just lucky I came out of it with no injuries.
"When you see hits like that, especially the Downie hit, I think you have to bring it to people’s attention and get them to think about it a little more. If guys are more vocal it will bring more attention to the subject and I think it will bring more attention to guys in the league that we can’t be doing this anymore."
Maple Leafs player rep Matt Stajan says too many careers have already been cut short by head injuries.
"If it’s a clean hit with a shoulder, well that’s going to happen, but when it’s something where it’s a stick to the face or looks like there’s intent like a guy jumping — you just can’t have that," said Stajan. "Everybody realizes it. The head doesn’t recover like other parts of the body. It could be your career. I think everybody is taking a stance on it and I think it’s about time."< .
Thanks to TV and the Internet, players also see and hear more about each incident.
"I think this sort of thing happened a lot before, you just didn’t see it over and over," said Brind’Amour.
"Now you do something like that and everybody sees it for weeks. That’s the difference, I think."
Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu says he hopes the league’s new tough stand will make a difference.
"It’s going to take some time, but if they give out a few suspensions like that, it’s going to make a mark."
But is it enough? Will 20- or 25-game suspensions really deter future incidents?
For now, that range seems enough for most players.
"I think the lengthy suspensions will deter guys from doing it," said Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe. "You lose a lot of money. And you let your teammates down when you’re out for 20 or so games. I think it is a deterrent."
Added teammate Sundin: "If 20 games is not a deterrent, I don’t know what is. That’s one fourth of the season — both in terms of losing pay and losing a chance to play in this league. So it should be for sure."
Penguins winger Jarkko Ruutu, who plays an abrasive style of game, also approves of the suspensions but adds a caveat.
"My thing is that it has to be fair for everybody," he said. "If the bar is set where it is, it should be every player — whether it’s a star or a plugger. As long as it’s fair I have no problem (with stiff suspensions)."
In other words, if an Alexander Ovechkin or a Chris Pronger cross-checks a player in the face in a blatant attack this season — 25 games it is.
"There’s things you can’t do in the game and you have to suffer the consequences," said Ruutu. "But it has to be fair — same incident, same rules."
And if it isn’t fair, we’ll certainly here about it from the players.