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Playoffs: why not? Upon reflection: Chara, Cooke, Hunter, Bertuzzi and more

If you saw the game agaginst the Wild Tuesday night you saw what all fans saw:  a Leaf team determined to win a game they were supposed to win.

Buffalo and Carolina aren't making it easy.  But if the Grabovski line has a nice run of games and Reimer continues his inspired play, I still believe, as I posted exactly a month ago when it was a longshot, (click to read the earlier story) the playoffs are still possible.  Absolutely.

I realize I’ve been largely silent here on some of the recent disciplinary issues facing the NHL.  But it’s a bouncing ball and like a lot of observers, I’ve been trying to determine if we can detect any shred of consistency in how the NHL responds to various “dirty” hits.

The Chara hit was a hard one for me to assess.  We all know he’s a big strong guy who finishes his checks.  His size and strength alone makes him a dangerous guy on the ice.  By all accounts he is a player who “respects the game” and all that.

This all said, and I know this will not be an opinion many others share, I do believe he should have been suspended for a couple of games for his hit on Pacioretti.  Yes, it’s a high-speed game and things happen in a flash and we can’t expect guys to necessarily know where all the potential danger points are in every NHL building.  But this is one of those times where the nasty outcome (again for me, at least) required the league to move away from the notion of intent and simply say:  “you probably didn’t mean it, but the hit was unnecessarily aggressive under the circumstances, and caused a very serious injury.  You have to sit for a couple of games…”

Again, I can’t possibly (who can?) know what Zdeno’s intent was.  But the outcome, to me, required a response.  (True "justice" is not really possible, I realize.  If the injured player misses the rest of his season and we do believe it’s a dirty hit, can we really say, “well, three games is just”…?  No, we can’t.  As in real life, the “justice system”, the courts, can never really give back what the injured party has lost—regardless of the punishment given to the person who broke the law.)

Now, as for Matt Cooke, well that’s an interesting one for me, too.  I have absolutely no problem with the league giving the guy 10 and a playoff round.  Some have suggested it should have been much more.  Now, I assume people feel this way because Cooke is, how can I say this….a recurring problem child.  I don’t know what he is like as an individual, but he certainly presents as an asshole on the ice.  So the league has stepped in (finally) and dealt with him fairly severely.

For me, the irony is that this particular hit, while obviously against the rules and intentional, would have, at various times in the history of the NHL, simply earned the Pittsburgh forward a two-minute minor for elbowing, full stop.  No discussion.

The fact is, (and maybe the many replays I saw didn’t show the true harshness of the hit) Cooke's awkward attempt at a  “flying elbow” barely connected the way it could have.  The other guy is OK.  I mean, Cooke has done way worse before, at least in my eyes, the hit on Marc Savard of the Bruins being a relatively recent example.

So Cooke gets the near-scaffold, in NHL terms, and his GM sides with the league rather explicitly.  No surprise there, given this all happened within days of the league's GM meetings about this very subject or three straight days less than a week beforehand.  (No word, though, as I write this, from Mario Lemieux, but maybe that will come later?).  So I guess everyone has had it with Matt, even his own organization.  Now he has plenty of time to sit, think and decide if he really likes and appreciates the opportunity to make millions playing a game in the prime of his life, before someone takes that privilege away from him for good.  (Or just knocks the crap out of him.  Whatever comes first.)

Now, this leads me to my broader point.  I’m among those (and many of you reading this will as well) who remember all kinds of incidents through that years that spoke of the ever-present  potential for violence in hockey.  Dale Hunter’s hit on Pierre Turgeon when Turgeon was with the Isles, I think it was (1980s, but I’m trying to remember exactly when) was awful.  Big hit from behind, well after a goal had been scored.  Turgeon did not see it coming.  Dirty, dirty act.  And the league penalty was pretty harsh, as I recall—as it should have been.

In earlier times you had stick-swinging incidents, at least ones that I remember.  Teddie Green and Wayne Maki, Larry Zeidel and Eddie Shack are two that stand out.  I’m trying to remember how long the suspensions were in those cases, dating back to the late 1960s when those incidents took place.  Green was seriously injured (skull fracture?) and came close to dying, I believe.  People thought he would never play again.  It took him quite a while to make his comeback to the NHL.

More recently, we had things like the McSorley chop to the head of Brashear.  Again, a very long (one full calendar year, as I recall, and rightly so) suspension for a thoughtless and very dangerous move made out of…I don’t know what.  Anger, revenge…something, I guess.

But the most blatant, for me, remains the terrible incident involving Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore.  At the risk of offending people who like Bertuzzi and support him, I remain shocked to this day that the NHL responded in such a weak-kneed fashion.

Again, how can you miss not only the seemingly obvious intent, but the actual act of hitting a guy from behind with a gloved hand and then slamming his head to the ice when Moore so obviously was not—and could not have been—expecting it?

Again, the result figures in my judgment, too.  The fact that Moore has never regained full health and obviously will never again be able to earn a dime in his chosen profession was just ignored by the league.  Bertuzzi missed a few games that spring, then because the ensuing lock-out season was somehow “counted” in his punishment, he was back playing in no time.

Steve Moore wasn’t, and isn’t.

And it’s like the league’s dirty little secret.  No one wants to talk about it.  No one wants to deal with it.  (I assume when the civil litigation case finally goes to trial, there will be some squirming around the league.)

In any event, for me, Bertuzzi should never have been allowed to play for Team Canada at the 2006 Olympics.  That’s the highest sporting honor you can receive, to be invited to represent your country, yet there he was, for all the kids in the country to cheer for.

(Of course people deserve a “second chance”.  But in hockey terms, the penalty, to me, was simply far too lenient.)

So yes, we all have our opinions on the rules, about particular players and how the league should deal with all this.

I’m sure many will find my views regarding Bertuzzi absurd.  What can I say?  We agree to disagree, I guess.

Handling league discipline is not easy, I well realize.  It sounds like a cop-out but guys are simply bigger and faster, on average, than ever before.  Because the league eliminated a lot of the grabbing in the neutral zone guys are flying around more than ever before.  The speed of the game is an issue.  The inflexible boards are a problem.  Huge equipment is a problem.  A lack of no-touch icing is an issue.  Hockey “tradition” is a problem.  Most of our long-ingrained hockey attitudes are a problem, too (we all want tough, hard-hitting hockey.  But where do we draw the line?).

Some of the above could be dealt with.

Most people want fighting kept in the game and I’m not sure fighting helps at this point.  The argument has been that if you eliminate fighting you’d get more sneaky, dirty and dangerous play. 

But isn’t that why we have two referees now, video cameras everywhere and league officials watching the players' every move.  If a guy does something like spearing, slew footing or whatever, even if he doesn’t get caught during the play, nowadays he can still get nailed with a huge suspension and fine. 

Has it taken a hit to the head of Sydney Crosby, a money-maker for the league, for them to really care?  Steve Moore didn’t matter, I guess.  Crosby does.

The NHL can do a better job of controlling this.  They are trying.  Just not hard enough.



  1. I actually agree with your assessment on Bertuzzi. And they’re just too many ironies that one must scratch their heads on.

    Earlier in the game, a Vancouver player DID fight Moore, a mutual agreement fight, as I call it. Now that should have been the end of that The Canuck player? Matt Cooke!

    Exactly seven years later, we have the Chara hit.

    Speaking of which, I remember Dale Hunter, years before he hit Turgeon, ramming future Leaf Joe Nieuwendyk into that same area.

    Hunter's hit on Pierre was on April 28, 1993 in game 6 on the 1993 playoffs first round. Hunter got 21 games for that. The next day, the Leafs went home up 3-2 against Detroit with a chance to move on to round 2. But shades of 1987, Detroit hammered the Leafs, 7-3. On to Detroit and down a goal in period 3. Gilmour ties it, and then the Leafs appear to win it late in the third period, but almost nobody notices and there is no replay for whatever reason. Thank goodness Gilmour passes the puck back to Bob Rouse in overtime and Rouse fires the puck that Nicolai...

    Green and Maki got into a stick swinging incident in a preseason game at the Ottawa Civic centre, August 16, 1969. Maki ended up hitting Greene over the head with his stick, the part where the shaft meets the blade.

    Green missed the entire season with a fractured skull. He returned in 70/71 with a helmet, (remember that jet black one?) and never once forgot that now home teams wore white and visiting team wore colour.

    Maki, ironically, died a five years later of a brain tumour.

  2. I also agree with your assessment of Bertuzzi. I'm a Red Wings fan and I was extremely disappointed when he signed with the Wings. I always feel conflicted whenever he scores. Can't wait for him to retire.

  3. It's a tricky subject. Cooke gets rest of season and Round 1, Heatley gets 2 games (for an equally deliberate elbow). Chara gets zip for almost breaking a guy's neck (and I don't believe he didn't know who it was or where they were. He clearly gave him a forearm shove just before they reached the stanchion, and there was certainly history there, both from earlier in the game and the previous games).
    From my POV, the league could show it's serious about banning head-shots by applying a minimum 10-15 game suspension for the first, 40 games for the second, and escalating to 82 games for the third. Attacks such as Bertuzzi's or Gillies' the other day would be, at minimum, 82 games. A second one of those and it's a lifetime ban. Players would take notice, I'm certain.
    But perhaps that's too much to expect from the only professional sports league that tolerates fighting - in fact, uses it as an integral part of their marketing strategy.

  4. The problem, Michael, is the guys playing the game now and bigger and stronger than ever. If, say, Carl Brewer, had hit, say, Yvan Cournoyer the same way 40 years ago, there would likely not been the same hue and cry. When bigger guys hit people, incidents like this happen.

    My solution to this is simple: any hit to the head at all, intentional or not, is (at least) an automatic major penalty. That means every high stick that hits a helmet will hurt the offender and his team. In time, the hits to the head will stop and we will not have to worry about whether the hit was intentional or not.

    Referees are not psychologists. They can't read intent. They can only react to what they see. It's like speeding. If the sign says 30 and you drive 40, you're over the limit.

    Case closed.