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Preseason suspensions send a message

9/27/2011

Consider this: How many professional sports leagues have suspended five players in the first week of the preseason?

Maybe none … until now.

The NHL is serious about cracking down on illegal hits to the head (and similarly dangerous blows) and new czar of discipline, Brendan Shanahan, is doling out harsher penalties than ever. And he’s just getting started.

As of Tuesday afternoon, players had been suspended for a total of 17 regular-season games plus a handful of preseason games. The point is for the rest of the league to take notice.

“It’s going to change the way you play a little bit,” Chicago Blackhawks defenseman John Scott said Tuesday. “I don’t think I play that way, but I think a lot of guys who do will change the way they play. Maybe they’ll think twice about going in and hitting some defenseless player.”

Many players have advocated for stiff penalties for a long time and think it will eventually make a difference. But there’s going to be an adjustment period.

“If there were longer suspensions people would have been less inclined to act that way,” Steve Montador said. “I don’t know how long the sample has to be but the stricter the rules, the less likely they are to happen.”

Shanahan is a recently retired player so people can’t claim the league is out of touch or penalizing aimlessly. In fact, the league is trying to be open about how and why they are penalizing, even producing videos with Shanahan explaining his reasoning.

“Everybody knows that they want consistency and they want transparency,” Shanahan told ESPN.com’s Pierre Lebrun. “I’m showing that I’m giving transparency; the consistency part will only be judged over time and that’s all they’re asking for.’’

The players respect that attitude.

“The more examples that are shown the better off we will be,” forward Jamal Mayers said.

For Mayers, it’s about having a plan when going in for a check to avoid the possibility of injury or suspension.

“My theory is if I can’t hit at least half of their body then I go by them,” he explained. “That’s the way I’ve approached it. You’re either going to hurt yourself or someone else. Typically when you just stick out your leg or shoulder or elbow and don’t get all of the guy, or at least half of him, you’re going to be susceptible.”

If Tampa Bay’s Pavel Kubina had followed those instructions, Dave Bolland may have avoided a concussion last March. And maybe Jonathan Toews isn’t plowed over by Willie Mitchell a few seasons ago. And Brent Seabrook has been the victim of two vicious head hits, including one by James Wisniewski, who was just suspended eight games for a second time after a hit on Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck.

Scott thinks he knows why the preseason has started out with so many questionable hits.

“Preseason everyone is running around and wanting to make an impact,” he explained. “You don’t hit in the summer, you just go out there and try to kill everyone so I’m not surprised. Hopefully accidental hits, you’re not going to get suspended for them.”

And that’s one possible downside. Will an accidental high hit lead to a lengthy suspension and if so, is it worth it?

“You’re never going to please everybody,” Montador said. “There are going to make mistakes.”

Anything negative associated with the new policies seems to be outweighed by the good they can possibly achieve over time: a reduction in head hits and concussions. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville says the organization is taking the issue seriously.

“We showed the [video] clips from Brendan [Shanahan],” Quenneville said. “We looked at it, we watched it. The guys talk about. We go to the website and see what is [a suspendable offense]. It has to grab their attention. You’re missing eight games or five games. You get hit in the pocketbook and you’re hurting your team as well. The severity of it has to get the players’ attention. Maybe it’s the greatest deterrent that’s been out there. I don’t think anyone wants to be missing games for that amount.”

Quenneville joked that in his day players didn’t know if they had a concussion, they thought “it was a hangover.” But times have changed and so have the severity of the hits. The league is walking a fine line, but cracking down more than ever.

“You don’t want to take out the physical side of the game because that’s what makes our game so special, but you want to protect the players,” Mayers said.