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Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Hits proposal needs more teeth

By Scott Burnside

So, after almost three days of discussion, the NHL's general managers came up with a proposal that amounts to a few lines of print.

Players aren't supposed to hit other players in the head when they aren't looking.

That's what the proposal, released Wednesday after the group's final day of meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., comes down to.

Fair enough. It doesn't really take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a good thing.

But that's it?

Oh, wait … the proposal continues:

If you nail someone from behind or from the side when they're not looking, you will be subject to supplementary discipline.

Or, in other words, the Star Chamber method of discipline will continue to thrive in the NHL offices. Close your eyes and throw a dart at the board: one game, two games, 10 games? Your guess is as good as Colin Campbell's.

Here's hoping the competition committee -- which will assess the proposal at its next meeting in June and decide whether to send it to the board of governors for approval for next season -- takes this proposal and puts some teeth into it. For example: If you are subject to supplementary discipline for violating this rule, the suspensions start at five games and go up for each transgression. Or 10 games. Or whatever the level of deterrent is that's needed to stop people such as Matt Cooke or Mike Richards from leaving the trail of carnage they have left in just this season alone.

It's not that we don't trust Campbell, the league's top disciplinarian, to do the right thing. He could start handing out suspensions that will give this new rule some meaning and make it an agent of change in eliminating the kinds of sickening hits like Cooke's, which may have cost Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins the rest of the NHL regular season.

But Campbell is the same man who announced Wednesday that he wouldn't suspend Cooke, even though the Pittsburgh Penguins forward is a repeat offender. Why? In large part because Campbell didn't think Richards' hit on David Booth of the Florida Panthers earlier in the season warranted supplementary discipline even though it was a reckless and cowardly hit on an unsuspecting opponent. In the curious world of NHL discipline, two egregious wrongs add up to no rights.

It is why Wednesday's proposal is nothing without significant refinement.

At some point, only consistently harsh penalties for these transgressions will stem the flow of stretchers onto the ice. Nothing in Wednesday's proposal suggests that is the plan, even though GMs spoke this week about the need for harsh discipline to be connected to any new rule. By leaving the consequences for these kinds of hits in the murky land of the subjective, the NHL will continue to leave its players in the dark about what it's really trying to accomplish.

One wonders what might have happened had these same GMs listened more closely to the proposal presented to them a year ago by then-NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly and director of player affairs Glenn Healy. Their proposal outlined a similar concept for a special penalty targeting blows to the head of unsuspecting players. Instead, the GMs basically ignored Healy and Kelly, both now gone from the NHLPA, and insisted that existing rules were enough to correct the problem.

That, of course, wasn't the case, and we can only wonder at what might have been had the GMs responded to players' concerns a year ago and moved to support the rule they essentially mimicked this week.

Had this rule gone into effect this season, would it have prevented Richards' hit on Booth? Would Cooke have thought twice about his hit on Savard? Having been suspended already for dangerous hits this season, would Cooke even have been on the ice?

We will never know. And it's too bad for the Panthers and Bruins, who stand to see millions of dollars in potential playoff revenue go by the boards in part because of these hits.

Here's hoping we don't ask the same questions about different players and teams a year from now.