I have a lot of respect, and sympathy, for someone in the position currently occupied by Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s dean of discipline. The game is fast and brutal. The stakes at this time of year are enormous. Every incident is different. And the imperatives of the sport, given the current (and overdue) emphasis on hits to the head and concussions, have changed radically in the last 18 months or so.
Like I said, I’m sympathetic -- especially given that the dangerous plays are coming in a seemingly unending wave this spring. (I will stop being sympathetic if Shanahan does not really throw the book at Phoenix’s Raffi Torres, a serial offender, after he took out Chicago’s Marian Hossa on Tuesday night. But we should know about that later.)
But here is my current dilemma: If the Penguins’ Arron Asham can get four games for cross-checking the Flyers’ Brayden Schenn to the chest and then punching a defenseless Schenn once from behind, and the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom can get only one game for cross-checking the Bruins’ Rich Peverly to the face, I’m just not sure anymore. Neither Asham not Backstrom had any disciplinary history with the league. Neither of their victims was injured. Peverly was kind of waving his stick around, but Backstrom’s cross check was arguably worse because it nailed Peverly in the visor. So is a single punch to the back of the head of a defenseless player the difference between four games and one game? I think everybody needs to know the answer to that question, especially the people wearing the skates and carrying the sticks.
Even with that, the problem is not with the league or with Shanahan. It also is not completely about a sudden lack of respect among players. I mean, come on. There used to be stick fights in the NHL back in the day. And it isn’t as if there haven’t been incidents all along: Chris Chelios against Brian Propp in 1989, Darcy Tucker against Jeremy Roenick and Sami Kapanen in 2004 -- they stand out because I was at the games, but there are a ton more and everyone knows it. Every honest person with eyes also knows that, back when they had only one referee, as soon as he turned his back to skate up ice in a Stanley Cup game, the players behind him had an open invitation to attempt to perform a spleen-ectomy on the nearest opponent -- and they often did. It wasn’t that long ago when you wondered how any Colorado or Detroit players were alive at the end of one of their wars.
Repeat: it is not new. But we see things now through different eyes, and the NHL needs to find a better way. First, Shanahan needs to make an example of Torres -- but that is a Band-Aid. What they need to do, this off-season, is to propose a new disciplinary system for all playoffs in the future. They would have to work on the exact penalties, but it would need to be a sliding scale by team, not by individual: one game for the first offense if the victim is not injured enough to miss a game, more if the victim is hurt; four games for the second offense by the team, eight games for the third offense, and on -- with significant financial penalties also assessed to the coach and the organization after the first offense.
And one other thing: Any suspension, regardless of earlier penalties called in the incident, will result in a 5-minute shorthanded situation to start the next game.
Take some of the judgment out of it. Make the penalties more automatic. Put the onus more on the teams to get this under control.