Wednesday, June 8, 2011

GTOG Point-Counterpoint: Cleaning up the NHL

One of the critiques we get here at GTOG is that we never disagree. It could be that there is one truth and we both know what it is. Or, it could be that we just don't disagree that often. Either way, we actually do have some slight disagreements about the NHL's handling of violent plays, who is to blame, and what steps can be taken to change it.

Definitely not the answer.
Finesse: In light of the Aaron Rome hit on Nathan Horton and the non-suspension of Alex Burrows for biting Patrice Bergeron's finger, I take it you still are in the "NHL is a garage league" camp?

Artistry: No question. But we're dealing with a much different problem now than when Mario Lemieux uttered that criticism years ago. Now the problem isn't clutching and grabbing. The problem is the NHL can't make it through a playoff series without a significant controversy, and the sideshow regularly overshadows the main event. How is the league addressing the issue? With an incoherent, piecemeal approach to headshots, finger biting, and finger bite baiting that cultivates moral relativism and general fan and media outrage. I submit that this is not a good strategy.

The conversation continues after the jump...

Finesse: I submit that you are assuming that this is something that "the NHL" can legislate away, and I disagree. Of course it would be better if the NHL's punishments and non-punishments were more consistent, but I don't think that more consistent punishment would necessarily be a better deterrent of dangerous plays. At some point, doesn't the responsibility fall on the players and coaches to change the way they play? And if they don't change, does it mean that they are OK with the way the game is played and legislated now? Take the Rome hit on Horton -- what is "the NHL" supposed to do about that? He is suspended for the rest of the playoffs (4 games) -- are you saying that is too much or too little? Vancouver fans will tell you that it is too severe because Horton, had he kept his head up, had the last best opportunity to avoid the hit. Boston fans will tell you that it was a vicious head shot...but, of course, they weren't saying that about the Chara-Pacioretti incident. Demanding that the NHL legislate out dangerous plays is asking the league to do the impossible and risks going too far in the other direction, i.e., punishments too harsh for the crimes.

Called a "faker" in Boston.
Artistry: First, the NHL can absolutely legislate late and high hits out of the game. Why don't we see defenseless players get knocked senseless with regularity in international play? It's simply not allowed. Jarkko Ruutu got sent to the showers when he nailed Jaromir Jagr in the 2006 Olympics, and Jagr had the puck. The game has gotten too fast to have anything less than a zero tolerance policy, and there is now a progressive faction at the management level - led by Ray Shero, incidentally - advocating for just this kind of revolutionary change. Second, the outrage by Vancouver fans over the Rome suspension is the perfect example of what I mean by the league encouraging moral relativism. If that was Henrik Sedin laying on the ice instead of Horton, those fans would of course be calling for the perpetrator's head. The only way to avoid the impression that league discipline is arbitrary is to make it - wait for it - not arbitrary. Look, here's the real issue, and here's why owners are loathe to do what is best for the future of the sport: fans like violence. We just don't want anybody getting badly hurt. But with modern athletes, you can't have one without the other anymore. Can you?

Finesse: I guess my question is, what is a zero tolerance policy? No late hits and no hits to the head? If that's the case, then David Steckel would have been punished for his hit to Sid's head, and as much as I love Crosby and want him back at 100%, I don't think Steckel did anything wrong. It was the rare case of Sid losing awareness on the ice. And Hedman would also have been suspended, but did he really do anything different than what happens 5 times every game? I just worry that a zero tolerance policy is too far the other direction and we start penalizing the hitter when the guy getting hit ducks at the last second, or when the hitter is taller than the guy getting hit so he strikes the head. So my question...what is your zero tolerance policy and, if you have one, doesn't that mean fighting has to be gone as well?

We forgive the hit, but not this picture.
Artistry: Now that you mention it, yes, fighting can go. This isn't 1978. These guys today can kill each other, and I'm not going to wait until they autopsy Derek Boogaard's brain to say getting punched in the face every other night was bad for his health. I wouldn't miss fighting. Nobody drops the gloves in the playoffs, and I don't hear any complaints. As for Steckel, I agree with you that he didn't do anything wrong. But we're talking about a zero tolerance policy for hits, and, for once anyway, Colin Campbell had it right when he said that was a collision, not a hit. Is your concern that a "zero tolerance" goes too far legitimate? Of course it is. But the alternative is "tolerance," and that's a "policy" so ambiguous and, ultimately, so dangerous, that it isn't sustainable.

You can have the last word.

Finesse: Maybe the best policy is "reasonable tolerance" and the only way to implement that policy would be with reasonable people. Colin Campbell? Not reasonable. GTOG? Reasonable. I just think that every circumstance is different and that reasonable, fair, and unbiased observers actually can do a better job by looking at each hit/incident separately than any sort of blanket zero tolerance policy could do. To just start suspending people because of contact with the head, even if it wasn't their fault or intention, is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Did I just say that because I wanted to say "throwing the baby out with the bath water"? You're damn right.

The bottom line is that I believe the NHL's disciplinary policy should start from a stricter place than it does now -- maybe presuming that contact with the head is suspension-worthy? That approach, coupled with a reasonable distinction made by responsible people in the league office, would be a great start. But ultimately, nothing will change unless the players stop hitting each other in the head.

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