Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but I do have genuine concerns regarding the direction the NHL is going in terms of physical play. Just look at what officials deemed worthy of a 5 minute major + game misconduct last night:
Absolutely atrocious. The referees called it “charging” but if you look at the video Lessard takes only three strides (perfectly legal) towards Scott Timmins before hitting him. The referees attempted to justify the decision by telling Senators coach Cory Clouston that Lessard “left his feet.” The multiple replays show that this isn’t even close to being true.
Timmins had the puck?- Yes
Lessard hit him from the front?- Yes
Lessard had at least one skate on the ice?- Yes
Lessard avoided head contact?- Yes
So what exactly was the issue? There is no reason for that to have been called even a minor, let alone a penalty of that magnitude. In any other season I would view this as a poor referee decision and nothing more, but theres no doubt that this is the effect of the the hysteria surrounding the NHL after the Chara-Pacioretty incident.
First of all, this is legitimate evidence that the NHL relies heavily on player reputation when making decisions. Now, Francis Lessard contributes virtually nothing on the ice. He is in the NHL for his fists and nothing more and truly doesn’t belong in the league. That doesn’t mean that the NHL and its officials should give him any less leeway on the ice than any other player. There is no doubt in my mind that if any regular player on the Senators – Sergei Gonchar, Nick Foligno, Peter Regin, etc. – makes that same exact hit then the refs don’t even think to blow the whistle. Referee bias is not a conspiracy, it exists, even if it’s subconscious. A third party released last year a study that showed that white NBA referees call a higher percentage of fouls against black players than white players, and vice versa for African-American referees. That doesn’t mean that white NBA referees are holding KKK meetings every Saturday. The point is that there is an inherent bias within everyone, including referees, and I’m certain that this holds true with NHL refs and their tendency to make decisions based on players involved instead of the actual action. Much like the NBA, the NHL offices have decided to remain in denial and vehemently deny any imperfections instead of acknowledging the issue and working with referees to limit bias.
The other issue is the NHL taking physicality out of the game. Concussions are something to be very concerned about, but at the same time you can’t fully compromise the game of hockey in order to deal with it. The NHL made a step in the right direction when in the offseason they placed an emphasis on punishing blindside hits and hits to the head, but that’s only good in theory. As the season has progressed we’ve seen referees take that to a whole different level and penalize huge but clean hits while also taking simple boarding or roughing penalties and turn them into majors and misconducts. It’s not just the referees that are getting out of hand, though. To be fair to them, they have a lot to be worried about with the way the media and fans acted after Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty.
Now, Zdeno Chara was fully deserving of a penalty on that play. Pacioretty had gotten rid of the puck well before before Chara hit him. Chara knows full well that he needs to let up in that situation, and for that I can see a major + misconduct penalty being given. Let’s look at what kind of reactions this hit got.
- Montreal fans have “tied up police emergency lines” with calls complaining about Chara.
- Montreal police announce criminal investigation.
-Air Canada threatens to remove itself as a sponsor of the NHL because of their decision not to suspend Chara.
Talk about overreactions. What exactly is Chara to blame for? Should he have been suspended for being really big? Should he have been suspended for the turnbuckle being unsafe? It’s unfortunate what happened to Pacioretty, but this has nothing to do with the NHL cracking down on headshots or dirty plays. Chara didn’t touch Pacioretty’s head; the turnbuckle did. If you want to be upset and place blame somewhere, blame the NHL’s lack of attention focused on the danger that the turnbuckle poses. Maple Leafs defenseman Keith Aulie came out and stated that he finds it hard to believe that Chara intended to hit Pacioretty into the turnbuckle. He even goes as far to say that Chara couldn’t even had done it on purpose if even he wanted to. Hockey is a fast paced game. As Aulie says, there is no way in a split second he could have thought up the concept of smashing Pacioretty’s head into the turnbuckle and calculated what direction to hit him in and with what force. Jeremy Roenick also spoke to TSN’s Darren Dreger and said that he’s hit players and been hit into the stanchion before and that you have no idea “where they are” or “what happened.” I think their opinions mean a bit more than the people who sit on their couch who insist that Chara completely meant to do it. The truth is that Chara held on to his check too long and it happened at the wrong place. If an identical play is made at center ice or behind the net Chara gets a 2 minute penalty and nobody even thinks twice.
As a society, we tend to look for things and people to blame for misfortunes. People can not accept the idea that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. People wanted Chara to be suspended because the idea of Pacioretty could get so severely hurt without anyone to blame for it is an uncomfortable feeling. That’s why people WANT to believe that Chara intended to do it. This wasn’t an opportunity for the NHL to make a statement, as many people claim. If you want to see intent to injure, look at Todd Bertuzzi’s blindside hit of Steve Moore. Look at Chris Simon swinging his stick like a baseball bat at Ryan Hollweg’s head. Look at Patrice Cormier’s hit on Michael Tam.
The NHL got it right in not suspending Chara, but they still have made knee-jerk reactions to plays and given unnecessary penalties. Injuries, and concussions especially, should be a concern, but you can’t completely prevent them without killing the sport. Unless the NHL transitions from ice skates to sneakers, makes the puck out of foam and the boards out of pillows, makes all physical contact illegal, and switches from composite sticks to plastic ones, injuries are going to inevitably happen. Concussions are going to happen. Career ending injuries are going to happen. That’s the nature of hockey and players know what they’re signing up for. Car accidents happen. Plane crashes happen. People drown in swimming pools. People get severely injured skiing. Every day we take accepted risks. By playing hockey you’re accepting the risk of getting severely hurt. The NHL should do all it can to limit injuries so long as they don’t compromise the game as a result. Eliminate blindside hits. Eliminate hits to the head. Put money into researching and developing more effective helmets. But don’t radically change the game.