Eric Staal of the Hurricanes defends against Kris Letang of the Penguins during the Eastern Conference final. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
I have to say I was surprised and perturbed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s comments last Tuesday during CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast of Game 3 of the Cup final.
During a second intermission tête-à-tête with HNIC host Ron MacLean, the issue of head shots was broached – last Tuesday being the day NHL GMs decided to stand pat on any rule amendments. Bettman, somewhat disparagingly, raised the Ontario League as an example of why the NHL decided not to do what 70 percent its players hoped it would – and still hope it will.
To paraphrase, Bettman suggested the level of physicality in the OHL has been undermined by its check-to-the-head rule – an automatic two-minute minor or, at the referee’s discretion, a five-minute major and a game misconduct – and the gamesmanship that comes along with it. The NHL, Bettman intimated, is a man’s league. It prefers supplementary discipline in cases where it’s warranted, rather than chance players will fake a head shot to gain a power play.
While I don’t take umbrage with the NHL’s decision or even its rationale, I do find the commissioner’s use of the OHL as the NHL’s scapegoat a cop out. Let us not forget, the OHL is a teenagers’ league, the vast majority of whom will never make a career of hockey. It is incumbent on the OHL to protect its players.
I caught up with Canadian League and OHL commissioner David Branch at the OHL awards show last Wednesday – the day after Bettman’s comments – to see what he had to say on the subject. For his part, Branch had yet to hear what his NHL counterpart had said the night before; the CHL’s big cheese was diplomatic, but none too impressed.
“Did you watch the highlight video?” asked Branch with a snicker, referring to a package of memorable OHL moments from this season that included a number of bone-crunching bodychecks.
“We are the No. 1 developmental league for the NHL, but we feel duty-bound to always challenge ourselves in how to best protect our athletes. I know some detractors of our rule say it takes away from the physicality of the game; I really take exception to that and do not believe it is the case at all.”
There are some observers close to the OHL who disagree with Branch. They’ll tell you the league’s head shot rule means incidental contact often results in a penalty and that referees are under pressure to make calls they otherwise would not when big hits are doled out. But Branch was steadfast.
“It’s an educational process we continue to reinforce to our players, who, by the way, have played their entire careers before coming to the OHL with a no-head-shot rule,” Branch said. “We’re just an expansion of the everyday work that’s done in minor hockey programs.”
Which, logically, leaves one to wonder: If players learn the game with no tolerance for head shots and are groomed by and drafted from a developmental league with no tolerance for head shots, why must head shots be tolerated in the NHL?
That’s a question NHL players also seem to be asking. But I digress…
The OHL also came under some fire this season for amending its fighting rules, including an immediate end to fights once a helmet is removed or punched off. The league adopted the rule after the death of senior league player Don Sanderson in early January. Opponents charged it was an over-the-top, knee-jerk reaction to an isolated incident.
“It was a reaction to the Don Sanderson tragedy,” Branch freely admitted. “If we’re going to be criticized, that’s one I think we’re all prepared to take.”
Although I lean towards overall player safety in junior hockey, I will say there are few things more pathetic than watching an OHL fight under the new rules. Really, it’s better to simply ban pugilism from the league altogether than it is to watch knuckle-to-visor dust-ups with referees breaking-up fights before they even get started because a combatant loses his helmet early.
Statistics collected by THN show the number of fights in the OHL actually increased slightly after the new rules were instituted, a problem detractors theorize is the result of former “pretenders” and “yappers” being more willing to actually drop the gloves because they know they’re really in no danger of enduring a beating.
While Branch admitted the OHL’s fighting rules are not perfect and that the league is willing to change them if a better alternative is put forth, he stressed that the restrictions – like the head shot rules – were put in place to ensure the safety of players; the No. 1 priority on everyone’s list.
Player safety isn’t the No. 1 priority in the NHL and that’s fine; the players are the best in the world - they are adults and professionals. But commissioner Bettman would be much better served to ‘man up’ about his man’s league and admit that, rather than slyly drag the OHL through the mud in front of a national TV audience.
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