This column usually strives to be funny, but I know when I’m beaten. I can’t possibly compete for laughs with the NHL and its concept of “discipline.”
Let’s return to the first night of the playoffs, to the dying seconds of the Predators’ win over the Red Wings. Off a faceoff, the puck is directed to a corner in Nashville’s end. Shea Weber is first on it. Henrik Zetterberg follows him in and delivers the bathroom tissue of hockey hits: You can feel the cottony softness.
Weber is incensed because, well, who knows why? He directs a devastating right hook toward the Detroit forward’s head. Had the punch landed square, Zetterberg would’ve been knocked all the way into a different Scandinavian heritage. Weber is a mountain range of a man.
Then the coup de goon: The Nashville defenceman grips Zetterberg by the back of his head. With the windup of a big-league fireballer, he launches the Detroit player face-first into the glass. The force of impact cracks Zetterberg’s helmet.
Open Season: Head shots, dirty hits and suspensions have dominated the news in the first round of NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Join a special edition of HOCKEY CENTRAL for a discussion with our panel of experts as well as fan and player reaction. Watch and chat live on sportsnet.ca and Sportsnet, Thursday night at 11 p.m. local time.
Most NHL head shots—even the brutal ones that prompt TV analysts to use their Solemn Voices—occur during the course of play, at speed, the result of microseconds of carelessness or malice. But Weber was standing still. He chose to punch a rival player in the head, then to finish the job with a move more suited to wrestler-on-turnbuckle or Gallagher-on-watermelon theatrics.
The NHL looked over the tape, considered Weber’s transgressions, factored in the fact that Zetterberg’s head technically hadn’t exploded, and rendered its judgment: a $2,500 fine. No suspension. Weber was told to be a good boy and run along.
Little about the NHL’s discipline policy withstands scrutiny or adheres to logic. Sometimes the league decrees it’s the offending player’s intent that matters. Sometimes it’s whether the other guy got injured. Sometimes a player’s clean record is a mitigating factor; other times it’s ignored. Sanctions evolve and change and contradict one another, swirling together into a thick slurry of confusion and nonsense. The league seems more determined to protect its stars from suspension than from life-altering head trauma.
Across the NHL, players saw how the league responded to Weber’s assault and they took one clear message: anything goes. Cue the 2012 NHL Playoff Montage of Cheap Shots and Intents to Injure, featuring Scott Hartnell as Hulk Hogan and Daniel Alfredsson’s head as a pinata.
By game three of the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series, the referees had basically surrendered to mob rule. They left ferocious offences unpunished. Almost every whistle was followed by goonery and stickwork. Then came a defining moment.
Early in the second period, Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal was penalized for a fleeting, almost phantom hook to the midsection of a Flyer. And there you had today’s NHL in a snapshot. By all means, feel free to smash your stick into a guy’s teeth. Go ahead, use a rival’s head as a heavy bag—NO PROBLEMO. But don’t you dare gently place your stick in the general vicinity of a player’s belly!
NHL hockey is great when it’s fast and better when it’s physical. You might call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s best when the players’ heads remain attached.
A year ago, Air Canada threatened to withdraw its sponsorship if the league didn’t get serious about policing blows to the head. Guess what, Air Canada? The NHL isn’t the least bit serious about head shots. The evidence is inside Henrik Zetterberg’s cracked helmet—and pretty much everywhere else this playoff season.
Eventually, we will be witness to a hockey injury of sickening severity, a life forever changed. We all know it’s coming. We will all say we knew it was coming.