It's the new thing. Like celebrities adopting third world orphans. Like movie studios putting out exorbitant summer three-quels. Like politicians desperately attempting to appear hip with guerrilla Internet campaigns. League officials levying out heavy-handed judgments has been in vogue every since Roger Goodell sat "Pacman" Jones for the entire season And NHL's Senior Executive VP of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, is the newest member of the "it" crowd.
Philadelphia Flyer's prospect Steve Downie has become an example to the rest of the players that the league is serious about it's efforts to crack down on hits to the head. And he's got one of the longest suspensions in the history of the game as evidence.
Last season it became apparent that hits to the head were becoming an increasingly larger problem across the NHL. Players were being seriously injured by hits, that according to the rulebook, were completely legal.
Before the preseason began, the league sent a video to each club outlining rule changes, including how hits to the head would be called. A player could expect to be suspended if when hitting they:
- hit an unsuspecting player in the head
- target the players head
- injure a player
- hit a player late
It's the first three that are most interesting, as the latter two, late hits and launching, were already illegal. With this criteria the league is left to do the judgement call on whether they feel a player was unsuspecting, and whether the hitter was specifically targeting the head. This approach is essentially how Major League Baseball approaches a check-swing or a balk, there isn't any black and white definition, but you'll know it when you see it. Which can lead to confusion if the league isn't absolutely consistent.
Which leads to the third criteria, "Injuring a player". I have never agreed with the idea that a player should face a higher punishment if an illegal hit injuries a player. When the league does this, and they do often, they are sending the signal that it isn't the action, but the result that brought the punishment. Instead, the league needs to buckle down and dish out fines and suspensions anytime a player unleashes an illegal hit, regardless of injury.
As far as Downie goes, he was probably just a kid feeling the pressure of being on the bubble towards the end of preseason, and looking to make a name for himself. But with his reckless play he managed to break every aspect of the rule, and put the livelihood of another player in serious danger. And for that he deserves every minute of the 20 game suspension. But let's just hope that the league sticks to their guns when this happens again, perhaps with a more veteran player and down the playoff stretch. Because that's the only way this kind of play will be eradicated from the NHL.