Martin St-Louis is checked out by trainer Tom Mulligan after being hit along the boards against the Atlanta Thrashers. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
If Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard has done anything other than prove once again that Cooke is one of the NHL’s most dangerous players, it has shone a glaring light on the fact the NHL needs to change its rules surrounding bodychecking. Not head shots, bodychecking. Because what Cooke did really wasn’t illegal. It was stupid and reckless, but not illegal as the rules are now.
Is it possible to legislate head shots out of hockey? I don’t think so. When Martin St-Louis is on the same sheet of ice as Zdeno Chara, what’s Chara supposed to do? And then there’s the ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ argument that, although it’s getting repetitive, is nonetheless true.
But this isn’t a blog about head shots. It’s a blog about predatory play; players not letting up when they have a vulnerable opponent in their sights. It’s about the NHL leading the way in trying to make sure ex-players can still lead normal lives 20 years after they’ve hung up their skates. It’s about parents not being afraid to enroll their kids in minor hockey.
So, since it’s obvious many players either can’t or won’t stop themselves from blindsiding opponents in open ice, or going headhunting with their shoulders, or cross-checking others in the numbers when they’re three feet from the boards, or taking a guy down during a race for an icing in a 6-1 game, the best solution I’ve heard is to invoke an unnecessary roughness penalty, a la the NFL. It’s not my idea, but it’s a good one.
Unnecessary roughness in the NFL is defined as having occurred when “a player, in the judgment of the officials, uses tactics that are above and beyond what is necessary to block or tackle another player.” In football it’s an automatic 15-yard penalty and can also lead to an ejection if deemed “flagrant” or “malicious.”
That terminology seems pretty straightforward to me and would work in hockey with a minor tweak or two.
The NHL version of the rule could be defined as, “an incident where a player, in the judgment of the officials, uses tactics that are above and beyond what is necessary to bodycheck another player.”
I’d make unnecessary roughness penalties automatic five-minute majors that come with game misconducts. So Cooke blindsides Savard, it’s not necessarily an illegal hit like an elbow or a cross-check, but it’s unnecessarily rough and caused an injury – Cooke gets five minutes and an early shower. Think of it as similar to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Such a penalty gets the offending player out of the game and costs his team a power play. Supplementary discipline also comes into play after the fact, with the league reviewing any contentious hits with an eye to levying fines or suspensions for egregious offenses.
I’m not one to legislate physicality out of the game, it’s one of the great aspects of our sport; Alex Ovechkin’s hit on Jaromir Jagr at the Olympics was a perfect example of how a good, clean check – even if it did involve some contact to the head – can change the momentum of a game.
But I am one to ask players to take a split second to decide if really laying into an unsuspecting opponent, regardless of the outcome for that opponent, is really worth it. Couldn’t you lay into a guy just a little, so he knows he could’ve been railroaded, but that his opponent had too much respect for his well-being to possibly hurt him?
Injuries are going to happen in hockey. They’re part of the game. But injuries based in recklessness and lacking respect are unnecessary, which is why hockey needs an unnecessary roughness penalty.
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