The following article ran under the “Ranger Ramblings” banner at a different web site almost nine years ago. I am reprinting it now to show that as the more things change, the more they stay the same.

RESPECT – The NHL’s Four Letter Word

On-Ice Incidents a Black Eye
April 29, 2002

Aretha Franklin sang about it. People struggle all their lives trying to build and earn it. National Hockey league players are showing an increasing lack of it towards each other. NHL official are losing it among players, fans and media alike. Of course, I am talking about RESPECT.

The NHL should be basking in the glow of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Instead, the league is facing mounting controversy as it closes its eyes toward the violence infiltrating the first round of the playoffs.

Richard Zednik, Kenny Jonsson and Michael Peca have all had their playoff runs ended. In Peca’s case, it is possible he is done for the rest of 2002. Despite all of these horrible injuries, the NHL’s best answer is to suspend Boston Bruins defenseman Kyle McLaren for the remainder of the Bruins series with the Montreal Canadiens.
As the NHL’s Vice-President for Hockey Operations, it is Colin Campbell’s job the mete out punishment for NHL rule breakers. As the league’s disciplinarian, Campbell is proving to be just as clueless as he was as coach of the New York Rangers.

The best Campbell could do to teach McLaren, Gary Roberts and Darcy Tucker a lesson is to suspend McLaren for three games.

And what is Campbell’s “logic” in this case? “Mr. McLaren delivered a dangerous blow to the head of his opponent and caused significant injuries to the opposing player. Mr. McLaren clearly must be held accountable for his action in this regard,” Campbell explained to Howard Ulman, an AP sports reporter (4/29/02).

So let me get this straight, McLaren delivers a “dangerous blow” that “caused significant injuries” and he only gets a three-game suspension? The only thing that does is protect McLaren from the rest of the Canadiens.

Is it possible Campbell deals out additional games at the start of the 2002-2003 season? I suppose anything is possible, but an additional suspension loses its impact if it is not meted out at the time of the infraction. It also puts the NHL in the worst possible light. The league looks soft on justice except when the media and fans exert pressure.

If the Canadiens have a right to be upset with Campbell, then the New York Islanders should be apoplectic in regards to Campbell and his refusal to punish Roberts and Tucker for their Game 5 actions.

The Roberts hit on Jonsson is even more frightening given the growing list of players who have had to retire due to concussions and post-concussion syndrome. One would think the NHL would do everything and anything to eliminate plays that put a player’s health in question.

Merely assessing a five-minute major to a player who charged nearly halfway across the rink to run a player facing the boards is not the way to protect its players.
The most frightening part of the Roberts-Jonsson incident was the actions (or should I say lack of action) of referees Paul Devorski and Kevin Pollock, “Daily News” sports writer John Dellapina (4/29/02) reported that Devorski and Pollock did not call a penalty because “they couldn’t determine whether Jonsson had suffered a head injury.”

The Tucker hit on Peca illuminates just how players have lost respect for each other. In today’s game, hip checks are rarely that. For every player who actually hits hip-to-hip, there is a player whose idea of a hip check is to drop down low and cut out a player’s legs.
In some cases the person getting hit also bares responsibility for this problem. Rather than go with the flow of the hip check, players are trying to force their way through the hits.

Back in April 1997, Stan Fischler defended the art of the hip check in an article written for “The Hockey News”. Fischler urged players to follow the example of then New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire. The current boss of the Minnesota Wild said, “Nowadays players don’t avoid the hit; they want to go through the other guy and that’s when they get injured.”

At first sight, I thought that was what happened on Tucker’s hit on Peca. It looked like Peca was trying to “jump” the hip check. After watching it on replays, you can see that Tucker has dropped down and made contact with Peca’s knees.

What we have now is a double-edged sword. Players are looking to bull their way through a hip check at the same time the contact on the hip check is dropping.
Campbell’s defense?

“The hit’s allowed in the rule book. Did the referee call a penalty? No. Do we like those hits when they’re administered? You always ask questions when there’s an injury,” Campbell explained. {Dellapina 4/29/02}.

If that is truly the case, then someone needs to explain how Tucker’s hit is legal when it is supposedly illegal for a player to throw out a leg on a knee-to-knee hit.
The interesting part of Campbell’s contention is that is wasn’t too long ago that he was as the other end of this spectrum. In March 1997, Mark Messier was on the receiving end of a “hip check” thrown by Detroit Red Wings defenseman Slava Fetisov. No penalty was called. The next night, New York Islanders defenseman Rich Pilon submarined Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros. Pilon received a five-minute major and a game misconduct and Lindros received a bruised tendon in his knee.

During an ensuing pre-game report Campbell said, “What was acceptable 10-20 years ago isn’t [acceptable] now.” Apparently, it is still acceptable after all.

Another problem the league refuses to address is the idea of players who are going headhunting. Bruins President Harry Sinden can swear up and down that McLaren’s hit was “within the rules” (Ulman – 4/29/02), but the bottom line is that hits to the head are against the rules. That includes the types of hits Scott Stevens was using to lay out Carolina Hurricane after Carolina Hurricane in the 2001 NHL playoffs. It does not matter if the contact is an elbow, fist, or in Stevens’ case a shoulder. Any hit to the head needs to be dealt with swiftly and severely – just like the hits from behind and the checks aimed at players’ knees.

With today’s athlete being bigger and stronger, the idea of hockey being a collision sport, not a contact sport, is coming through loud and clear. These bigger and stronger athletes are wearing bigger and more improved equipment. It can’t help but lend an air of invincibility.

As a result, we are seeing more players hitting without thinking. How else can you explain a defender who sticks out his leg as a last gasp move on a hit? This knee-on-knee hit wrecks havoc with hockey player’s knees. The ironic part is that the player delivering the knee-to-knee contact is just as likely to get hurt as his intended target.

What does this all have to do with the cases of McLaren, Roberts and Tucker? The NHL has reached a point where its players can no longer police themselves. It is up to the league to see the headhunting, charges from behind and the hip checks aimed at knees are eliminated from the game.

Unfortunately, a three-game suspension is not going to get done. Then again, should we really expect anything out of Colin Campbell? Last year he had a chance to send a message to the entire NHL after Tie Domi assaulted Scott Niedermayer in the second round of the playoffs last season.

The NHL’s cop sent a mixed message at best by suspending Domi for the three playoff games and the first eight games of the regular season this year.

Would a 20-game suspension, in addition to missing the remainder of the playoffs, been enough of a deterrent to prevent what happened to Zednik, Jonsson and Peca?

Obviously we can’t be certain either way. The one thing we can be certain is that we will never know because Campbell frittered away the chance.
The NHL likes to think of itself as being the be-all and end-all when it comes to hockey in the world. It is ironic that they are far behind some North American minor leagues when it comes to disciplinary actions.

In the wake of the tragic death of Brittanie Cecil at a Columbus Blue Jackets game in March 2002, the United Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League moved swiftly and decisively to confront the problem of players who threw sticks into the crowd.

BC Iceman goaltender Bryan Schoen received a lifetime ban from the UHL after as a result of his actions in a playoff game against the Elmira Jackals. Jackals’ enforcer John Murphy speared Schoen late in the third period. Schoen grabbed Murphy’s stick and threw into the crowd at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena.

UHL President Richard Brosal acted swiftly and banned Schoen from playing in the league. It was not the first such incident for the league as Brosal set down lifetime bans for Muskegon forward Gary Coupal (1997) and Saginaw goaltender Stu Munn (1999) for the throwing sticks into the stands {Scott Lauber – “Press & Sun-Bulletin” (4/24/02)}.

While Brosal’s initial lifetime suspensions didn’t completely cure the problem of stick throwing in the UHL, Brosal’s action was consistent with past punishment. In fact, Schoen’s actions were less onerous than Coupal’s or Munn’s. Coupal had already received two 40-game suspensions for throwing his stick and Munn threw a broken stick into the crowd after a brawl in Utica.

The ECHL faced a similar situation with New York Rangers goaltending prospect Jason LaBarbera. While playing for the Charlotte Checkers, LaBarbera was pulled after being shelled for five second period goals in a playoff game against the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies. As he reached the Checkers’ bench, LaBarbera threw his stick – which bounced and hit an eight-year-old fan who was standing in an area that was supposed to be off limits to fans. {Bruce Berlet – “The Hartford Courant” (4/24/02)}.
ECHL Senior VP of Hockey Operations Troy Ward had no alternative but suspend LaBarbera. The Checkers netminder received an 18-game suspension. AHL VP of Hockey Operations Jim Mill announced that the league would uphold the ECHL’s suspension and prevent LaBarbera from playing in the AHL until his ECHL suspension was completed.

It is not my intention to compare the NHL’s on-ice problems with those faced by the UHL, ECHL and AHL. What I am comparing is how the three minor leagues acted when faced with a problem as compared to the NHL’s lack of actions.

The NHL faces a major image problem with their lack of decisive action in three above-mentioned cases. The league fought (pun intended) long and hard to rid itself of the brawling image it received during the era of the “Big Bad Bruins” and the “Broad Street Bullies”. By rolling over and not handing down prohibitive suspensions, Campbell and the NHL reawaken the “Slapshot” images the league has long looked to put into its past.

Campbell continues to defend his lack of action. “To just bring the temperature down is not the reason we assess suspensions. We’ve got to assess suspensions when they deserve it, when they cross the line. And I know sometimes people can’t figure out the consistency. It’s difficult. But that’s our job.” {Dellapina 4/29/02}.

And it is a job that Campbell and the NHL are not doing. It seems that “people” (i.e. media and the fans) aren’t the only ones who can’t figure out consistency. The NHL has been most fortunate that only one player has ever been killed due to on-ice play. I just hope that is not what the NHL is waiting before finding its consistency.

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