By Jason Menard
Tom Kuhnhackl’s 20-game suspension couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
I mean that wholeheartedly and it’s reflective of a positive change in the Ontario Hockey League that holds everyone – stars and goons alike – accountable for their actions when it comes to head shots.
Minor leagues have often been the proving ground for changes that find their way to the big leagues. One can only hope that OHL commissioner David Branch’s hard-line on head shots will find its way to the NHL sooner rather than later.
The NHL has been much more passive in penalizing players – extending a conciliatory olive branch of one or two games for questionable hits. The OHL is taking out any question of intent or accident – handing out five 10-game suspensions, a 12-gamer, and a 15-game benching.
Add to that today’s 20-game suspension of Niagara IceDogs forward Tom Kuhnhackl. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kuhnhackl last year and other than having an extremely challenging name to spell from memory, I came away from the interview impressed with his demeanour and presence of mind.
The son of a German star, he was handling the pressure well and adapting to the North American game. He has good size and wasn’t shy about playing a physical game, but that wasn’t what he was about. The younger Kuhnhackl is about speed and skill.
Just a few days before my Kuhnhackl interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Ryan Murphy. He too was extremely gracious with his time and analysis. He fielded all my questions with respect and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the process.
I’ve done a number of interviews with junior-aged players and these two were two of the best. Based on character alone, both guys easily match up to their lofty draft positions (Murphy was the 12th overall selection by the Carolina Hurricanes; Kuhnhackl was a fourth-round pick by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins).
And then this happened. Kuhnhackl appears to leave his feet against a defenceless Murphy. The latter suffers a concussion and is likely out for a couple of weeks at least.
Neither guy should be considered a dirty player. Both could be considered stars – and, in the past, they might be considered as candidates for lighter discipline than what would be handed out to someone designated a goon – especially when one adds the fact that Kuhnhackl isn’t a repeat offender.
Instead, Branch brought down the hammer and with his 20-game proclamation announced to the league that no one – no matter how skilled, how nice, or how infrequent your transgressions – is above the law.
And hopefully that message will penetrate the skulls of the OHL’s players – and maybe they’ll start being more respectful of other players’ noggins.
Theoretically, imagine if an NHL player like Sidney Crosby was benched for double-digit games during the season. If there had been a precedent set like that, then perhaps we wouldn’t have had what happened to Sidney Crosby in reality.
Sure, it might be tougher to levy a similar suspension at the NHL level. After all, you’ve got sponsors to keep happy, a player’s union to appease, and fans who pay a whole lot of money to watch their stars. None of those people would be too happy to see an Ovechkin or Crosby in a suit instead of suiting up – especially when it’s not for an injury. But it’s exactly the message that needs to be sent. Head shots, intentional or not, have no place in today’s game.
After all, it’s better a star is in the stands because of the commissioner’s ruling than finding themselves out as a result of a career-threatening injury.
I like both Kuhnhackl and Murphy. They’re both great kids. Unfortunately, only one deserves what he got – and that’s Kuhnhackl for his reckless hit. As I mentioned above, the 20-game suspension couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
And the resounding message left in the wake of that suspension is exactly what the OHL and its players need to feel. One can only hope that wave of change also reaches the NHL.