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Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Violence in hockey hasn't changed, but our tolerance for it has


Contrary to the widely held view some people have, violence is not on the rise in hockey.

Anyone who remembers a game from the 1970s and '80s, when bench-clearing brawls were the norm, knows otherwise. Just click on this link to remember what hockey was really like back then.

But what has clearly changed, especially over the past decade, is society's tolerance for violence in hockey. And that's OK.

Which brings us to Patrice Cormier. The 19-year-old forward, whom the Devils selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, was suspended by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the rest of the season (including playoffs) after elbowing Mikael Tam, sending him into convulsions.

It's a strong message, and I applaud the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

As of 10 p.m. ET on Monday, more than 1,000 people answered a poll on CBC.ca, and 56 percent of respondents thought the suspension was "too light," 38 percent thought it was "just right" and only 6 percent thought it was "too heavy."

I'm telling you right now, if you ran that same poll after the same incident and same suspension 10-15 years ago, the "too light" respondents would have been fewer and the "too heavy" group larger.

The hockey community (GMs, coaches, players, fans and media) isn't willing to accept the same level of violent acts. Perhaps it's because, as a group, we are more educated now about hits to the head and their devastating long-term effects. The data from the NFL suggests concussions and head injuries should be taken extremely seriously.

So while the game is no more violent than before (does anyone remember the Wayne Maki and Ted Green stick-swinging incident in 1969 that resulted in a fractured skull for Green?), the caretakers of the game have perhaps seen enough.

After his team's practice in Toronto on Monday, veteran Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray was informed of the Cormier suspension and didn't miss a beat in his reaction. This is a longtime hockey man who has seen it all over the years.

"I did see the hit, I think there has to be a message sent," Murray said. "It's important that the vicious hits get cleaned up in the game of hockey. To me, [the suspension is] fair. I don't like to see young guys get penalized too severely, but in the situations I'm seeing in the game today, I believe it's really important for the people in charge to send the right message to the game of hockey. It's not going take away his livelihood. It's for the rest of this year. It's a big lesson learned, and hopefully, it gets sent to the rest of the hockey world right away and we start getting away from those attempt-to-injure kind of hits."

I know Cormier is a good kid; he doesn't have a track record of this stuff and will hopefully have a long NHL career. But his elbow on Mikael Tam was sickening and dangerous.

The Cormier ruling falls in line with a pair of long suspensions also given out in the Ontario Hockey League this season. Do we see a trend here? Absolutely. And believe me, the NHL is monitoring this closely. That's why the head shot discussion in Boca Raton, Fla., in March will be perhaps historical. It better be a serious discussion because the standard has been set high now by the people who run major junior hockey in Canada. Not to mention the no-tolerance rule for head shots in the International Ice Hockey Federation across the ocean.

Here's who else is keeping an eye on this: the courts in both Canada and the United States. We saw the legal mess that unraveled after Todd Bertuzzi's hit on Steve Moore almost six years ago. If the legal system sees a sport that is now handing out stiffer justice for acts of violence, it may not feel the need to get involved if it knows the leagues in question are meting out discipline adequately.

I'm just happy I'm not Colin Campbell right now. The NHL disciplinarian will have the entire hockey world ready to pounce the next time we have an act of violence in the NHL.

To be fair, Campbell hasn't been shy about doling out his own medicine. He gave Steve Downie a 20-game suspension in September 2007 for a preseason head hit on Dean McAmmond. Marty McSorley's career ended with an indefitnite suspension for his stick-swing to the head of Donald Brashear. Bertuzzi was out for more than a year, even if the lockout left that penalty somewhat murky. But the difference now is the topic has never been so sensitive. Hits to the head are the No. 1 focus of everyone involved in the game.