Despite ongoing talks to eliminate dirty hits and head shots from the game of hockey, recent disciplinary decisions are sending mixed signals to both players and fans.
Montreal Canadiens forward Georges Laraque (pictured) was handed a five-game suspension by NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell on Monday for his knee-to-knee hit on Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall in last weekend’s contest between the two clubs. Kronwall suffered a severe MCL sprain during the play. He will be out of action at least a month, if not longer.
Laraque said after the game that the incident was an accident. He defended himself by saying that four refs on the ice all missed the call and only assessed him a 2-minute tripping penalty instead of a 5-minute major or a game misconduct. Red Wings fans, however, are well-aware that refs can make mistakes (Bray May’s backhander to tie the game against Dallas anyone?). After the game, both Detroit GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock stated that the hit was dirty.
Regardless of your take on the incident and whether or not you think the suspension is just, I can’t help but wonder what type of message this is sending to players and fans alike. Is Laraque’s suspension more of a precedent-setting suspension to discourage dirty plays or a double-standard?
Only 20 games into the season and NHL fans have already seen a number of questionable plays and even more questionable calls. Granted, refs have a tough time when they see the fast-paced action in front of their eyes, but I don’t have sympathy for the disciplinary committee members who have the advantage of instant replay. It’s easy to suspend a tough guy like Laraque or James Neal when he KO’d Derek Dorsett with a viscious hit from behind last week, but what if your name is Richards? Or Malkin? Or Ovechkin?
Earlier this season we saw Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers destroy David Booth with an open-ice check. Sure, Booth had dropped his pass and was admiring it a bit too long, but the hit was clearly a head shot. Booth hasn’t played since the incident occurred at the end of October. No suspension was assessed to Richards for the play.
Remember last season when Ovechkin hit Sergei Gonchar with a knee-to-knee in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Gonchar was out for a few weeks recouperating the knee while Ovechkin still got to play on. Ultimately Pittsburgh won the series and advanced past Ovechkin and the Capitals, but Ovechkin never recieved any disciplinary action for the play.
How how about when Evgeni Malkin started a fight with Henrik Zetterberg at the end of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals this past May? The Penguins were on the verge of losing the game 3-1 when Malkin started a fight with Zetterberg at the tail-end of the game. According to league rules, and precidents set by the league in earlier rounds of the playoffs with a suspension to Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins, any player assessed a fighting major at the end of a game will be given a one-game suspension. Even though Malkin was assessed a fighting major with under 20 seconds left in the game for his bout with Zetterberg, he was back in the lineup the following game.
Laraque got what he deserved. If you ask me, he should be out until Kronwall is back on the ice. That doesn’t change the fact that the effort to curb these plays is futile unless the NHL applies the rules to all players in all situations. Free passes can’t be awarded to league-leading scorers or guys who make the game more fun and exciting. If you want to hold these players to a higher standard of excellence, then hold them to it on all counts. There is no room in the game of hockey for dirty hits – no exceptions. Rules can’t be undone and redone on a whim based on the offender and their track record. Until the NHL shapes up their policies and comes down with an even fist, dirty plays will continue and I fear we haven’t seen the worst of them.