Commentary

Not players' job to police themselves

Updated: March 16, 2011, 7:33 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- One of the interesting theories we heard kicked around as the NHL GMs headed back to their playoff races and their rebuilding projects was the notion that it was now somehow up to the players.

After the introduction of a number of measures and enhancements to the rules to make the game safer, it would be the players themselves who would determine whether the number of concussions went down, whether the number of reckless plays was curtailed.

Huh?

Did anyone happen to watch the NHL games Tuesday night?

Did anyone watch Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins deliver a nasty little elbow to the back of the head of an unsuspecting R.J. Umberger of Columbus?

Did anyone happen to see San Jose sniper Dany Heatley's sneaky elbow to the jaw of an unsuspecting Steve Ott of Dallas?

Neither Heatley nor Marchand has a reputation as a dirty player. Big deal. In those moments, they helped reinforce the widely held notion that players don't get it -- at all.

You might imagine that having listened for two straight days as the GMs and league officials unveiled a series of multipronged strategies for making the game safer, reducing the number of concussions and coming down harder on dangerous plays, that Marchand and Heatley might have waited a little longer before adding to the litany of ugly on-ice hits this season.

As our colleague Pierre LeBrun reported Wednesday, Heatley was suspended for two games and Marchand will have a hearing with senior league executive Mike Murphy Thursday morning.

Here's hoping the message to them isn't, well, it's up to you boys now.

Because it isn't.

With all due respect to the league's fine players, they are children when it comes to the rules. They need to be told what to do and how far is too far. And if some of them need a nice timeout, then so be it.

The problem of course is that the league's policy on supplemental discipline has been so murky and byzantine that no one has a clue what the league's message really is.

Some of what came out of these GMs meetings is meant to clarify that.

Starting next season, the league will make coaches, GMs and teams accountable via significant fines if there is a pattern of reckless behavior among their players.

The GMs have also asked Campbell to deliver harsher suspensions for players who target vulnerable opponents, especially if they target their heads, and to come down hard on repeat offenders.

These things will all come into effect next season, but Campbell could get a jump on proving that he remains the man for the job by making a statement now that the league isn't going to spare the rod and spoil the game.

"Stiff enough penalties on the ice and off the ice through supplementary discipline do affect player behavior," Toronto GM Brian Burke said.

"Players are smart and they adapt. You're not ever going to take all the contact out, you're not going to take out suspensions because a player who is playing on the edge is going to cross that edge once in a while," Burke added.

Campbell won't rule on the Marchand hit because his son, Gregory, plays for the Bruins (sorry for that little conflict of interest getting in the way again), but you can bet folks who feel the Bruins get a light ride when it comes to discipline (see Joe Thornton's comments on the lack of suspension for Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty from last week) because of the Campbell connection will be watching this one closely.

But here's why player respect and players policing each other may come only after they've been hided a few times by the NHL.

We noted last week after Pavel Kubina's dangerous elbow to the head of Chicago's Dave Bolland just 24 hours after Chara's controversial hit on Pacioretty that those are the kinds of plays that are ultimately more troublesome for the NHL.

Why? Because they happen all the time, unlike the Pacioretty hit which has a lightning-strike element to it.

The league suspended Kubina for three games. But clearly Marchand and Heatley must have missed that memo.

That's why we'd like to see not just a sliding scale for players based on their own behavior but based on relevant plays.

If Marchand and Heatley see Kubina get three games and then basically do the same thing two weeks later, then they should get three for the act and 10 more for being just plain stupid.

Do you think anyone outside their two teams would have any issue with it?

Do you think other players might actually start to take note and make better decisions on the ice?

Remember when the new rules came in after the lockout and it took awhile for players to relearn how to defend, how they couldn't hook and hold and obstruct with impunity anymore?

What did it take, a few months, maybe most of a season before players weren't parading to the penalty box scratching their heads after getting yet another holding or hooking penalty?

Those players who couldn't adjust were not long for the NHL.

If the league is honest about its commitment to reducing dangerous plays, then maybe a season of tough love will produce tangible results.

Maybe a season of 10- or 15-game suspensions for idiocy like we saw Tuesday night will do the trick.

We actually think the NHL found a nice groove during these meetings.

We think the league's wide-ranging attack on the issue of player safety from safer glass to concussion protocols to the demand for stiffer suspensions is forward-thinking without being rash.

Certainly many GMs are quietly optimistic that when they meet a year from now the number of concussions will be down, that the work here in Boca will have yielded positive results.

"I'd like to see how the game is going to be played with rules we institute now, the tightening of the rules. Maybe next March we have a different stance on things. Hopefully we won't have another incident right before, like we did last year and this year, and we'll actually have a safer game," offered Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, who favors a blanket ban on all head shots.

Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was another GM who was looking for a more comprehensive ban on blows to the head but likewise felt the work done over the last three days was hopeful.

"Well, that was my thought for a while. But based on what we did here, I'm OK with this. We may get to that point, but let's see what this step does now to maybe limit a lot of these hits that we've seen," he said.

"I'm optimistic," added Buffalo GM Darcy Regier. "My own personal goal here is to better understand not just concussions, the whole process. We effectively have in excess of 50,000 hits in the NHL of which approximately 100 a year are going to involve some sort of injury deemed concussion. So if you could just go in and pull out those 100 hits, that'd be great, and we'd be at 49,900."

We'll see in a year, of course, but there's no time like the present to start being right, is there?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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