Jason Pominville was carted off the ice on a stretcher after being hit from behind by Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
Neither of the actions taken by the NHL on Tuesday will move the needle much with respect to the things Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has been talking about.
Miller, in case you missed it, was very direct while providing his thoughts on the blindside check/hit from behind Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson delivered to Miller’s teammate, Jason Pominville, Monday night.
That was before Hjalmarsson got a two-game suspension from the league, which also handed out a two-game sentence to Isles defenseman James Wisniewski for his less-than-heroic gesture to Rangers disturber Sean Avery. (The video is obviously touchy subject matter.)
Miller’s comments were contained to his thoughts on the Pominville affair, but when he said, “you have to change the culture sometime,” he could have very well been addressing both happenings.
Dealing with Hjalmarsson first, I don’t, for a second, think he had any intentions of putting Pominville face down on the ice. And unlike a lot of people in my post, I agree it’s at least worth acknowledging things do happen fast out there. Anyone lucky enough to get an ice-level seat to an NHL game can tell you that.
But while I think the two-game suspension might provide a typically conscientious player like Hjalmarsson reason to give pause and reflect next time, I don’t think it will do much to deter players who more consistently play on the edge. I don’t think anybody who couldn’t exist in the league without first and foremost being a physical player is going to lose much sleep contemplating a two-game sentence as a consequence for the kind of hit that could have caused some serious trauma.
The NHL’s approach to the issue of player safety seems similar to the relationship a moribund, but profitable, team has to winning. Critics of said team will declare the organization has no interest in winning, but that’s not really accurate. Every club would prefer to be successful, given its druthers, just like every person would prefer to be in great shape – it’s just a matter of what you’re actually willing to do to make it happen.
I’m sure the NHL would love it if no player was ever again carried off in a stretcher; it’s just not willing to actively implement the mechanisms necessary to make that more of a possibility for fear it would undermine the game’s physicality.
Admittedly, it’s a tricky line to straddle, but when a 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenseman can bolt in from the blueline and pound an unsuspecting player who doesn’t even have the puck from behind and only be asked to sit down for a couple games, it’s clear there’s no forceful desire for change at the highest ranks.
As for Wisniewski, there’s no doubt he had to be suspended, even though he was probably just giving visual representation to a term players toss at each other all the time.
Anybody of a certain age and awareness knows Wisniewski wasn’t asking Avery if he wanted to go out for ice cream cones after the game.
Wisniewski’s gesture and subsequent suspension are all about the times we live in; everything is caught on tape and political correctness has crept into every corner of the world, even formerly immune places like the sports arena.
But even though the field of play, frozen or otherwise, remains a testosterone-filled venue, insults with direct roots in homophobia aren’t going to fly.
They also aren’t going to stop when the people who deliver them get a relative slap on the wrist. Maybe that culture Miller referred to in another context is also too embedded in this regard to realistically expect gigantic change, but the league definitely missed an opportunity to take a stronger stand and make steps toward trying.
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