Is the NHL’s most recent 10-games plus the first round of the playoff suspension to Matt Cooke a sign that the league finally has a clue in reference to a zero-tolerance stance on head shots, or is Cooke’s suspension merely a case of a blind squirrel finding a nut?

Call me a pessimist, but I am taking the blind squirrel side. For a long time the NHL’s idea of zero-tolerance is drawing a line in the sand and them erasing it on an ad-hoc basis.

Let’s face it, the Cooke suspension was an empty net goal in the world of suspensions. Unfortunately, just like many NHL players who miss on their empty net attempts, the NHL has a long history of shooting wide.

First off, the NHL should have dealt with Cooke problem a lot sooner than they have. A little over a year ago they had the chance to throw the book at Cooke for his vicious hit on Marc Savard and the NHL chose not to level a suspension saying they had no other recourse.

Of course they had a recourse. It was one offered by Don Cherry on a Coach’s Corner segment on CBC following the hit on Savard. Not only does Cherry review the Savard hit, but he goes on to detail the laundry list of “borderline” hits featuring Cooke flaunting the rules.

In discussing the hit on Savard, Grapes pointed to Rule 21 which deals with Match Penalties. More specifically, he pointed to Rule 21.1 which states

“Match Penalty – A match penalty involves the suspension of a player for the balance of the game and the offender shall be ordered to the dressing room immediately.
A match penalty shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure or who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner.”

No matter what anyone says, any hit to the head is a match penalty because it is an attempt to deliberately injure a player.

The league should have been addressing this problem years ago when Scott Stevens was waylaying players with hits to the head. Stevens’s defenders were always quick to point out that the Devils captain was merely using his shoulder as opposed to an elbow or arm to the head.

The bottom line is the NHL should have used Rule 21.1 to put an end to any and all shots to the head. I would even be willing to give some leniency if it is a players’ first offense or even if the head shot happened by accident as part of an honest attempt to throw a check. However, none of these applied to Cooke back in March 2010 just like it didn’t in March 2011.

Of course, the NHL’s counter argument stems from the referees not using this rule to assess penalties – thus allowing the NHL a way to weasel out of doing its job – despite the fact the NHL can and does suspend players when no penalties are called.

Joe Yerdon of MSNBC Sports offered up the following evidence supporting a suspension for Cooke’s hit on Ryan McDonagh.

Cooke’s hit touches on a lot of things the league wants to eliminate from the game and makes him the perfect target for a message-sending landmark punishment:

• He delivered a blindside hit
• He delivered a blow to the head
• He targeted McDonagh’s head
• He’s a repeat offender

Turning the clock back a year or so, you could very easily replace McDonagh with Savard and have just as compelling an argument for lowering the book on Cooke last March.

Not even Pittsburgh’s GM Ray Shero could avoid the obvious – that Cooke has to be dealt with once and for all.

“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game. Headshots have no place in hockey, ” Shero stated. “We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Headshots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”

When your own GM throws you under the bus, you know that you have crossed the final line and are beginning to run on borrowed time.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, quiet on the matter is Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. While quick to hammer the NHL for its lack of action during last month’s Penguins-Islanders free-for-all, his silence in regards to Cooke’s latest antics speak volumes. While Nick Kypreos did write on twitter that Lemieux met with Cooke and offered an ultimatum of change or go, Lemieux owed it to the NHL to be just as outspoken in reference to Cooke or run the risk of being re-branded a hypocrite.

While it is stylish to drop the hammer on the NHL, the players have to take responsibility for their actions. Calls to repeal the instigator rule as a potential way to force the players to police themselves falls short because I don’t think it is enough of a deterrent by itself. The NHL and the NHLPA must work together to better educate players and officials (both on-ice and those in the league’s office).

In a February 2011 column for the Sporting News Today, Craig Custance offered that perhaps the offending player should have a bigger say in the suspension levied. I am not so sure I agree with at idea, but Custance did bring up one point that I had not considered before.

Custance wrote the NHLPA finds itself in a Catch-22 situation – they represent both the player accused and the player injured. It is a situation that has not gone unnoticed by players.

Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart was on the wrong end of a blindside hit that cost him a broken jaw (and 15 games missed) and cost Calgary’s Tom Kostopoulos a six-game suspension.

“It’s a bit of a conflicting interest. As the PA, I guess they feel it’s their responsibility to try and get the guy as lenient a penalty as possible. On the other side of it, you’ve got a guy who is not playing and is injured who is a part of the PA as well, ” Stuart explained to Custance.

“I think the PA’s best interest should be protecting players, not protecting a guy from getting a couple-game suspension.”

I have reprinted an article I wrote back in April 2002 when “Ranger Ramblings” was housed at a different web site. I have posted it again because, while the names and incidents have changed, sadly the problem the NHL and its players face have not changed in reference. It also contains a reference to I made about the NHL needing to do something about head shots as I railed against the headhunting Stevens did to the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2001 NHL playoffs.

As a Ranger fan, the inevitable question over Sean Avery comes up in reference to Matt Cooke. Yes, Avery does try one’s patience with some of his antics and some of the most stupid penalties taken. However, Avery has never been suspended b y the NHL for an ON-ICE infraction.

His only suspension, and subsequent anger management classes, came as result of his “sloppy seconds” comment. Given the laundry list of Cooke’s suspensions and non-suspension “encounters”, shouldn’t Cooke be undergoing some sort of anger management training as well?

Perhaps this latest suspension might prove to be the trick in policing Matt Cooke and his actions – if the following quote from Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is to be believed.

Cooke said, “I realize and understand, more so now than ever, that I need to change. That’s what I wanted my message to be.”

While actions do speak louder than words, and time will tell, at least he admitted he has a problem and that is a first step for Cooke – and his 10-game/first playoff round suspension is a first step for the NHL as well.

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