NHL Player-Safety Words Ring Hollow In Light of NFL Bounty Punishment

By Jason Menard

Hey NHL! Your current commissioner was plucked from one of the other Big Four sports, so in the interest of protecting your players, is there any chance of history repeating itself and maybe importing the NFL’s Roger Goodell?

The reason? Instead of merely paying lip service to protecting players, Goodell’s words carry even more weight in light of the unprecedented penalties levied against the New Orleans Saints for its actions in creating – or inaction in preventing – a bounty program.

Starting in 2009, headhunting wasn’t just encouraged – it was rewarded. Allegedly players would receive $1,500 for a knockout hit and $1,000 for a hit that resulted in the opponent being taken off the field in a car. Come playoff time, those rewards doubled or tripled. And in 2009, the Saints won the Super Bowl.

It would have been easy to sweep the Saints’ transgressions under the rug. After all, New Orleans has been a public relations dream for the league. They have been a rallying point for the post-Katrina city rebuild, they’re led by a charismatic, nice-guy quarterback who has made it a point to dedicate himself to the city, and their Super Bowl victory in 2009 was something out of a Hollywood script.

Last year, that nice-guy quarterback shredded the NFL’s record books. He surpassed football (and Isotoner) icon Dan Marino’s single-season passing mark; he set new high-water marks for completions and completion percentage; he became the first quarterback with two 5,000-yard-plus seasons… And so on and so forth. He set six records alone last year.

New Orleans is the franchise you love to love. The post-Katrina story is heart warming. If anyone deserves some leniency, it’s them. But to Goodell’s credit, he didn’t give them any.

The head coach is suspended without pay for a year (over $7 million). The general manager’s gone for half the year. Other coaches have been suspended and the team has been fined and forced to forfeit draft picks. And the team’s defensive co-ordinator in 2009, even though he’s no longer a Saint, is out of the game indefinitely.

It’s not over. There are sure to be appeals and some of the players who participated in this bounty program will likely be fined or suspended too. But the message is clear – you intentionally try to hurt players, you will pay the price.

So if the NHL can’t get Goodell, can it at least bring over his message? The NHL is facing a crisis of confidence amongst its fans who are concerned about issues surrounding player safety.

And the longest suspension in the NHL this year? James Wisniewski’s eight-game benching (plus four pre-season games) for an illegal check to the head. Of the other 13 head infractions, the vast majority were three-game suspensions, with a couple of five-gamers thrown in.

It’s not enough. There continues to be a steady parade of players heading to that dark room. It seems like almost a daily occurrence that the evening highlight packages features someone being knocked out of a game with concussion-like symptoms. Many of us watch the game’s greatest player, Sidney Crosby, holding our breath with every hit. Two lengthy stints on the DL due to concussion symptoms has many of us fearing that the next one will be the last one.

The best-case scenario there is that we lose a supreme talent from the game we love. The worst-case scenario is thatCrosbyloses much more than that – and that he suffers permanent complications from repeat concussions.

The rumbling amongst the fans and pundits is growing. The debate about fighting has been rekindled, but instead of being fuelled by moral questions, this round is being fought on the long-term impact of fighting on players’ health. Equipment, game speed, rules, penalties – they’re all on the table because as much as we love the game of hockey, we don’t want to turn it into a blood sport.

Despite being in their best interests, players have shown an inability to police themselves. There are still too many reckless hits; there are too many opportunistic cheap shots; and too many players are suffering the consequences. Goodell’s actions made the league stand up and take notice – and you can be certain that any other formal or informal bounty programs on other teams have now been dismantled.

Some may look at the NFL sanctions on the Saints as extreme – but if you’re serious about getting something out of your game, then the potential penalty has to be far worse than any conceivable reward. If the NHL is serious about protecting its players, then it’s time to back those words with force.

Start with 20-game suspensions and team fines for flagrant hits to the head causing injury. Pre-meditated, staged fights? Team fine and 10-game suspension of the coach. Repeat offenders? Forfeiture of draft picks and/or forcing a team to play with one less roster spot for the duration of that repeat offender’s sentence.

Sure, the Player’s Association will appeal and fight. But you keep levying those penalties until one sticks. And then you’ve set a precedent. Once players and teams know that the rules have teeth, they’ll stop tempting fate.

The player’s health is a serious issue. It’s time to take serious measures. Goodell blazed the way, now it’s up to the NHL to follow that path.

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