Does the NHL need to crack down on reckless infractions?
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Does the NHL need to crack down on ugly on-ice incidents?
Scott Burnside: Hello, Pierre, have you seen a dramatic increase in the number of Leaf car flags since Brian Burke announced Wednesday he is leaving his post as GM of the Anaheim Ducks? But I was interested in another issue on this day. A year ago, we'd already had a number of ugly on-ice incidents, including Steve Downie wiping out Ottawa forward Dean McAmmond in preseason and Jesse Boulerice pole-axing Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. And then there was the ugly Randy Jones forearm crunch to the head of Patrice Bergeron that ended the Boston center's season. All three villains were members of the Philadelphia Flyers, but that's not the point. So far this year, a couple of incidents, most notably Tom Kostopoulos's hit on Mike Van Ryn and Jarkko Ruutu's elbow to Maxim Lapierre of the Habs, netted three- and two-game suspensions, respectively. So are players finally getting it in terms of serious infractions or is there more ugliness to come?
LeBrun: There are car horns blaring outside my window right now in downtown Toronto. Just kidding -- kind of. But I'm with you; let's leave the Burke-to-Toronto talk for another day. Enough already. While it's true we've had fewer ugly incidents so far this season, maybe it's because Chris Simon and Steve Downie aren't playing in the NHL right now. No, seriously, I don't think for a second the players as a whole have decided to respect each other more. If anything, I think it's the opposite. There are way too many hits from behind, even if the ultra-violent acts are getting the national attention. Someone will get really hurt soon.
Burnside: It was interesting to hear Cliff Fletcher, the current Leafs GM, talk about the three-game suspension to Kostopoulos. Or rather not talk about it. As he walked away, he said he couldn't afford any fines, so the inference is he thought three games was too light given that Mike Van Ryn is out at least a month with a variety of injuries, including a concussion. Van Ryn was an important part of the young Leafs' early-season success. And I'm not suggesting there should be different standards for hits on players of varying abilities, but we are talking about hits that have the potential to cost teams literally millions of dollars. If the Bruins had Bergeron on the ice last season, they might beat Montreal in the first round, and then who knows? Will the Leafs miss the playoffs because they don't have Van Ryn for a long time this season? I think most people want to see these types of hits erased, and I think there are only two ways to do it: education and punishment -- harsh punishment. But the NHL's view of harsh is dramatically different than most hockey journalists and the general public.
LeBrun: The tough issue right now in our game is whether players are turning their backs to players near the boards and asking to be hammered from behind. I'm not saying that was the case with Van Ryn. I think Kostopoulos is lucky he got only three games. But in general, I see way more young players turning their backs that way. What gives? When I played midget hockey in North Ontario, that's the last thing I would do because I knew I would be run through the boards! Of course, I usually would have run the goalie by then. Point is, I hate to be the guy blaming the victim, but I guess I am. Don't turn your backs!
Burnside: One of the things Fletcher pointed out -- accurately, I believe -- is that forwards come with such speed now into the offensive zone that they don't have time to change their minds or point of attack if a defender does what you point out happens, turns his back to protect the puck or protect himself. No one is suggesting going back to the old days of rodeo hockey when one defenseman routinely hog-tied a forechecker so his partner could get the puck at his leisure, but these are accidents waiting to happen. That said, I still don't get why it's so hard for Colin Campbell, the NHL's lord of discipline, to just say, "OK, you drilled a guy into the boards from behind, see you in 10." Players learned not to hook and hold, something they'd been doing for years, in less than three NHL seasons. You can't tell me a few 10-game rests without pay wouldn't get the message across.
LeBrun: I believe hits to the head are a bigger issue right now. I applaud Campbell for giving Jarkko Ruutu that two-gamer for his soft elbow on Maxim Lapierre. Sure, it wasn't a vicious elbow, but he still went for the guy's head. Sure Doug Weight didn't leave his feet on Brandon Sutter, but did he have to hit him? Carolina GM Jim Rutherford, I can assure you, will not let this go. He's like a dog on a bone on this one. He's going to broach it at the GM meeting in Naples in March and wants to see action. Two-minute penalty every time a guy hits someone in the head? Why not?
Burnside: Funny, I saw Colin Campbell's comments on the issue after, and it sounds like Mr. Rutherford might have his hands full. Here's my thing: I think handling the discipline for more than 700 players is bigger than one man. I don't think there's a tougher job in hockey than the one Campbell has, but I think it's time the game changed how discipline is meted out. It's time Judge Roy Bean got some help.
LeBrun: He does get help, Scotty. He bounces a lot of his tougher decisions off Mike Murphy, Kris King, et al in the Toronto head office. It's way too easy to pick on Campbell. No matter what he decides, no one will ever be happy. Easy to pick on us Toronto people when you live down there in Atlanta, eh Scotty? But, for argument's sake, if Campbell had enough one day and called it quits because of all the mean things Scott Burnside writes about him, who would you replace him with?
Burnside: Well, that's the point actually, it shouldn't be one person, and it shouldn't be a bunch of guys hanging around the Toronto office going, "Gee, that was nasty." And honestly, I don't think it's too easy to pick on Campbell. It's his job. I think he's let far too much go (four games last year for Mattias Ohlund hacking Mikko Koivu's leg in half? Come on). But this whole process shouldn't be like the Star Chamber many GMs believe it is. Open the process up. Have a panel. You could be on it if you like. And open it up to the media so everyone knows exactly what goes into the decision -- like a court case. The NHL is still far too caught up in the old days, when the greater the divide between them and the media the better. News flash -- times have changed. Think John Shannon would love to put disciplinary hearings on NHL Network? No other sport does it, why shouldn't the NHL be the first?
LeBrun: Since this is a league that decided to change its GM meetings to post-trade deadline, as opposed to pre-trade deadline, therefore guaranteeing almost no media coverage, I highly doubt you would get your way on that one, Scotty. You point to an interesting issue, though, because NHLPA head Paul Kelly has expressed a desire to have someone from the union have a hand in the discipline decision-making. But I don't see it happening. Unless, of course, it is something the union can gain in the next round of collective bargaining. And hopefully that's not for a while yet!
Burnside: Unfortunately in the past, the union's role, or at the very least the public perception of the union's role in these matters, has been to lobby on behalf of the perpetrator while ignoring the victim. I sense Paul Kelly is very much interested in changing that and changing the culture of disrespect we see too often with players preying on opponents who are defenseless (to wit, Doug Weight's devastating hit on Brandon Sutter). Still, all in all, it's nice to see we haven't yet had to discuss "the big one." But maybe you're right, like Los Angeles, it's just a matter of time. Until next time, my friend.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Neither Scott nor Pierre has been punished for ugly on-ice incidents.