Commentary

NHL must change philosophy on reckless physical play

Updated: March 24, 2008, 6:17 PM ET
By Ken Campbell | The Hockey News

It was about as predictable as an episode of "Three's Company." The moment Kurtis Foster of the Minnesota Wild went hurtling into the boards and broke his leg last week trying to beat Torrey Mitchell of the San Jose Sharks to the puck, the usual hue and cry came from the hockey community calling for an immediate move to no-touch icing.

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The loud dresser with the loud mouth who rules Canada during the first intermission on Saturday night was, of course, first in line, continuing to beat a nag that he has had for years.

How noble.

So, where are all these people when a player gets hurt in a hockey fight, something that happens with much more frequency and severity than a player chasing down a potential icing? Where are these vocal player advocates when a player sustains a serious eye injury because he wasn't wearing facial protection? Where are these player sympathizers when they're calling out the NHL for being too heavy handed after it suspends a player for doing something that could have caused a serious injury?

Had Jonathan Roy of the Quebec Remparts beaten Chicoutimi goaltender Bobby Nadeau senseless during his moment of insanity in a Quebec League brawl last weekend, it would have been viewed by many as an unfortunate byproduct of something that is "part of the game," and the result of emotions bubbling over "in the heat of the moment." Forget that everyone with even half a brain knows the vast majority of hockey fights have nothing to do with the heat of the moment. Most of them are either staged bouts between two knuckle-dragging dancing bears in an attempt to justify their existence in the league or the actions of a player whose team is losing a game badly and needs to "send a message."

Is no-touch icing, or some form of it, something the league should consider? Absolutely, but if unscientific responses from the powers that be are any indication, the league apparently has no appetite for changing the rules governing icing in the NHL. A survey of GMs done by TSN of Canada shortly after the Foster incident indicated that 17 of 26 managers from around the league are against the notion of no-touch icing.

And that's probably a good thing. Or at least it exhibits some level of consistency.

After all, the league has exhibited time and time again that it doesn't give a damn about the players when it comes to sustaining serious injuries in hockey fights. That, of course, will all change the day a player dies on the ice in front of 18,000 people (13,000 if the game is in Nashville). The league also doesn't seem to have much regard for the players when it goes along with the laughable notion that eye protection should be a matter of choice for the players. And neither the league nor the NHL Players' Association seems to have a whole lot of regard for the victim when it comes time to suspend a player for doing something stupid.

So why, then, should it have any concern for the unfortunate slob who gets drilled into the boards chasing down a puck on an icing call?

What not enough people are talking about in this whole debate is why Mitchell got off without a suspension. It appeared as though he pushed Foster into the boards at the last second, perhaps out of self-preservation. Under the current methodology for handing out discipline, the league was probably right and consistent with its decision to not suspend Mitchell.

But it has long been the opinion of this corner that thinking has to change. Things will improve on this front in the NHL only when the league adopts a philosophy that makes it a suspendable offense for reckless use of the body. Players are accountable for their reckless use of the stick and it's time to extend that to every aspect of the way they play the game.

There is absolutely no doubt that there was nothing nefarious about Mitchell's hit on Foster, no intention to injure, no objective other than to try to get to the puck first to thwart a possible icing.

But what Mitchell did was reckless and there's an enormous difference. Had Mitchell had it imbedded into his psyche to have more respect and regard for his opponent, there's a good chance the hit would have never occurred. And that's where the league continues to drop the ball on this issue.

It happens all the time with things such as headshots, elbows and obvious charging and boarding penalties. Players who have been taught to finish their checks are doing so and you can't blame them for that. It's what has been required of them for years. But they're doing so in a reckless and dangerous manner and, because of it, players are getting hurt.

That's where the real problem lies, not in no-touch icing. And if the league isn't going to clean up its act when it comes to all the other senseless acts of violence that happen consistently on the ice, establishing no-touch icing is going to have almost no effect on the number of injuries we see.

Ken Campbell's "Campbell's Cuts" appears every Monday only on thehockeynews.com.

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