With the NFL still reeling from the scandal of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program, another sport is confronting violence concerns as well: hockey.
Eleven players were ejected over the course of first week of the NHL postseason—to six during the entire playoffs a year ago—and several have been suspended by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan in an attempt to keep hockey from fully turning into “Fight Club on Ice.” But the Stanley Cup Playoffs have resembled just that in the early going, and a sport that has been deeply questioning the role of fighting ever since the death of former enforcer Derek Boogaard at the age of 28 last summer now finds itself mired in one of the roughest postseasons in recent memory.
Rough stuff has its place in the NHL, for sure. A good hockey check is a lot like a tackle in football; though it doesn’t stop the play (as on the gridiron), it separates an attacker from the puck and can effectively stop an offensive rush. Laying your jaw on the line by provoking a fight, moreover, can get your team going if it’s lacking energy.
But there’s also a culture of sticking up for yourself and your teammates after a questionable check by an opponent—even in an earlier game—which is where a lot of the fisticuffs and particularly dirty hits emerge in an extended series.
With the intensity ramped up even further for a parity-filled postseason, the casualties have been racking up quickly. Ottawa veteran Daniel Alfredsson has now missed two games with a concussion since a dirty elbow by the New York Rangers’ Carl Hagelin. Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn has also been out after a retaliatory cross-check to the neck by Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham in the first period of a Flyers blowout. San Jose almost lost its third-line center in Dominic Moore on a sucker-punch by Vladimir Sobotka late in Game 2 in St. Louis, but Moore returned just two days later and played through a broken nose in Game 3.
The most flagrant hit of all was by a repeat offender, Phoenix’s Raffi Torres, who has been suspended indefinitely after an open-ice check to the head of Chicago’s Marian Hossa. Hossa left the ice on a stretcher; Torres didn’t leave the ice at all. The play probably deserved a five-minute major and a game misconduct, but no penalty was called.
Twenty thousand fans at the Wells Fargo Center saw Torres leave his feet to deliver the blow, as did most of the players on the ice and both benches. But none of the four officials on the ice made the call.
To prevent injuries like Hossa’s, the best thing the NHL can do isn’t to rewrite the rulebook or dole out longer suspensions. The first priority should be to promote better officiating.
On a do-or-die stage in the postseason, players are always living in the heat of the moment. They’re not focused on the next series, next game, next period or even next shift; it’s all about the here and now. A two-minute penalty can be just as much of a deterrent as a two-game suspension, and when those penalties go uncalled players have no instant incentive to keep their intensity in check.
The problem isn’t that there are too few officials, but that those officials are being spread too thinly. Besides skating at game speed and keeping out of the way of the puck, the two referees have a litany of penalties to watch for, while the two linesmen—who can tell the refs to call a penalty after the whistle if a player is injured—have to make split-second calls every time a player or the puck crosses one of the rink’s many lines. With seemingly arbitrary rules and lines, such as the trapezoid behind the net, being added every few years, officials only have more things to watch and their focus is diverted from the plays that cause injuries.
If the NHL is really worried about cleaning up the game it should cut the fat out of the rulebook, not for the players and fans, but for the officials. The hit on Hossa was illegal without question, and if the refs didn’t see it then they weren’t watching the game carefully enough.
As a whole, NHL refs do an incredible job of keeping up with such a fast-paced game, as most of the players that have been suspended in the playoffs also received in-game penalties. But when gaping holes like Torres’s uncalled hit emerge, you’ve got to plug them.
Joseph Beyda hopes that the more hockey columns he writes, the more likely that the San Jose Sharks can somehow stay alive in the playoffs. Send him some much-needed moral support at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.