Engelland suspension highlights need for automatic sentences

Ken Campbell
Deryk Engelland

It was interesting to note that the explanation for Wednesday’s suspensions to Deryk Engelland and Corey Potter were voiced over by director of player safety Patrick Burke – man, does that guy sound like his dad – and not Brendan Shanahan.

You’d have to think that with the Tom Wilson hit from behind and the Shawn Thornton appeal on his docket, Shanahan was just too busy and/or burned out to do it himself.

Which brings us to the Engelland suspension, which came as the result of a hit on Justin Abdelkader of the Detroit Red Wings last Saturday. With Abdelkader reaching for a puck in the neutral zone and putting himself in a vulnerable position, Engelland drove his shoulder into Abdelkader’s jaw, giving him a concussion on the play.

“This is not an otherwise full body contact in which head contact is unavoidable,” Burke said in the video.

More than three years after Rule 48 dealing with hits to the head, the Engelland suspension proves hockey is no closer to preventing these kinds of hits than it was before.

Otherwise, these hits wouldn’t continue to happen at such an alarming rate. And the players, for the most part, are skating around not know what is an illegal hit and what isn’t and worst of all, they have no idea whether they’re going to be suspended and for how long. And the league still has yet to reconcile the conundrum it faces when it comes to differing heights in players.

Engelland received five games because Abdelkader was hurt and he was suspended for three games two years ago for a headshot. The standard for first-time offenders is pretty much two games, but nobody really knows.

There is, of course, a solution to all of this. The league could make all head shots, regardless of intent or injury, punishable by a set and automatic suspension. Take your pick on the number of games. Let’s say, five games for the first suspension, then subsequent five-game bans for each headshot sentence after that for the remainder of a player’s career.

It’s my opinion that part of the reason these things keep happening is that players don’t know what the punishment is going to be and two games is simply not enough for them to be deterred. In fact, Jared Cowen of the Ottawa Senators said after getting two games for a headshot last week that he has no intention of changing the way he plays at all.

Longer automatic suspensions would clean this up in a second. How do I know? Because there are no more bench-clearing brawls in the NHL anymore.

And why is that? Because the NHL decided it had had enough of them and instituted a rule in the 1980s that decreed that the first player who jumps off the bench to join an altercation gets a 10-game suspension. And, presto, no more bench brawls.

With the notable exception of David Clarkson, players know the second they jump over the boards that they’re going to be hit with a 10-game ban. They’re not guessing at it or wondering whether it will be applied. It is automatic every single time and everyone knows that.

The same could be done with headshots if the NHL had the conviction to deal with them the same way.