NHL makes right call in decision to suspend Pronger

Updated: May 17, 2007, 11:52 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

We interrupt our regular nagging and battering of the National Hockey League to offer this heartfelt "well done" in the aftermath of the league's decision to suspend Anaheim Ducks star defenseman Chris Pronger for one game after his forearm shiver to the back of Tomas Holmstrom's head left the Detroit forward in a bloody heap on the ice Tuesday night.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it was a gutsy call to make in the middle of a closely-contested Western Conference final from a league that has shown itself to be decidedly weak-kneed in these kinds of situations.

Tomas Holmstrom
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThe Red Wings' Tomas Holmstrom was flattened by the Ducks' Chris Pronger in Game 3.

It's the kind of decision that could easily cost the Ducks Game 4 on Thursday. And if it costs them Game 4 it will give Detroit a 3-1 series lead and hence almost certainly cost the Ducks the series. And by extension, a loss to Detroit Thursday will likely cost the Ducks a trip to the Stanley Cup and the Cup itself.

If there has been a suspension handed down to a more high profile player than Pronger, a former Hart Trophy winner and nominated once again this year for the Norris Trophy, at a more crucial time of the season in recent memory, we couldn't recall it.

But that's the point of the matter, isn't it?

In the end this really wasn't a league decision, it was a Chris Pronger decision. He may not like the ruling but he earned it in spades when he launched himself at Holmstrom whose back was almost entirely turned to the 6-foot-6 Pronger.

Unfortunately, the league has a long way to go before players know instinctively when they're about to cross that line from fierce competition to dangerous play. That's because the league has been far too reluctant to make these kinds of courageous calls, especially when it comes to elite players at important times.

A few days ago Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson drilled Buffalo defenseman Henrik Tallinder into the boards in the Eastern Conference final. No penalty was called on the ice and no supplemental discipline was meted out by the league.

A one-game suspension would have been appropriate. Who knows what would have happened had that been the case. Alfredsson scored the winner in Game 3 to give the Senators an insurmountable three-game lead over the Sabres.

At least there will be no such wondering in Anaheim.

Tuesday night in Anaheim, Pronger and forward Rob Niedermayer crunched Holmstrom against the boards. Niedermayer was initially assessed a major for boarding and a game misconduct. But replays show Pronger's blow from behind, with his forearms extended, was actually the most dangerous part of the hit that left Holmstrom with two cuts that required 13 stitches to close.

Occasionally combustible Anaheim GM Brian Burke took the high road on the decision handed down Wednesday afternoon.

The former dean of discipline for the league said he disagreed with the suspension but respected the process.

He tried to explain to his successor at the NHL office, Colin Campbell, that Pronger had actually approached Holmstrom from a 45-degree angle to the boards and that he only ended up crunching Holmstrom's head after Niedermayer pinned him against the boards with a good check. He suggested, without blaming Holmstrom, that had his helmet been done up properly there would have been no cuts.

"If you watch the replay you're talking about a player that is 6-foot-6, his arms never go above his shoulders," Burke said. "He's not head-hunting there."

"Does it end up a headshot? Yes, I'd have to concede that. I don't think that's how it started out," he added.

Pronger didn't meet with the media on Wednesday.

"He's sour about it," Burke said. "That's why he's not talking to you guys. He's sour about it. The league doesn't like us swearing. I don't want Chris to talk to anyone today."

Although the on-ice crew assessed the major penalty to the wrong guy it was such a bang-bang play that we're prepared to give them a pass on the initial penalty. That the league then responded by suspending Pronger -- even after Holmstrom returned to play in the third period (and added an assist on the fifth Detroit goal in their 5-0 romp), is about as textbook as this gets.

People talk about the respect or lack of respect players have for each other.

Respect comes from knowing what the boundaries are.

Players in general don't whack each other in the face with their sticks because the league has drawn a clear line in the sand on stick fouls. Do it and you're on the phone with Colin Campbell or worse in his office.

Hits from behind and blows to the head, sadly, remain in that grey area.

Anaheim captain Scott Niedermayer, for one, seemed perplexed by the Pronger hearing.

"It's hard to know really what's going on," Niedermayer said.

"I mean, my brother got the penalty. They're talking to Chris now. Anybody else they want to bring in? Maybe they should talk to Holmstrom, as well. You know, I don't know. I don't know what they're doing," he said.

Well, at least in this moment, the NHL is trying to say that if you endanger another player by hitting him in the head or whacking him from behind then you're going to get the boot no matter who you are.

There will always be extremists who figure that Pronger should have got more, as though no penalty is ever enough. Sometimes it is enough and this is one of those times. Anyone who's watched Pronger play through the last two playoff years knows he's as important a player as there is. He leads his team in scoring with 11 points and has logged more than 30 minutes of ice time in nine of the Ducks' 13 games this spring.

Had Holmstrom been more seriously injured -- or had Detroit fudged Holmstrom's injury by keeping him out of the third period and then fudging his availability for the rest of the series -- then perhaps Pronger would have been penalized more severely.

But the Wings didn't. And it shouldn't matter.

"Everybody saw it. He's got cuts, he's got 13 stitches. It's not like it's a booboo here we're talking about," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.

"This is a guy who wants to play, and we're about playing. If you think there was any thought process into, 'Oh, how can we milk this?' That's not how it works. I said already, I don't believe that's how the league should work. Did you do something? Did you not do something? Make a decision. The league did. We're fine by it. Let's go."

Indeed. This incident has the potential to shape the history of two clubs.

Had Holmstrom, arguably the team's most important player in this series, been seriously injured by Pronger's rash act, it would have told one story. He wasn't. Now Pronger will miss a game that might impact his team's future.

That's how it should work. It doesn't all the time. But it should.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com

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