It Isn’t That Hard
Ellen Etchingham makes a number of thoughtful and valid points in this post on concussions, the culture of hitting in the NHL and in hockey more generally, and finding a workable (and effective) disciplinary system. She concludes with:
What we often forget when proposing new punishments is that the players are not only objects of the disciplinary regime but co-creators of it. The NHL cannot simply dream up a system and impose it as though skaters were unruly children or bad dogs. To have the slightest hope of being implemented, any revised disciplinary structure must speak to the interests and desires of the players who will be playing under it. Thankfully, for perhaps the first time ever, the interests broad cross-section of players are starting to weigh on the side of deterring concussions rather than causing them. You can thank Colby Armstrong for that.
I have not commented on the Raffi Torres suspension, mostly because anything I say about it will be a rehash of an argument that I have been making in one forum or another since Marty McSorley brained Donald Brashear with his hockey stick. I can’t help seeing Torres as a scapegoat, a suitable player to vilify as the problem.
I agree with Ellen’s assertion that the players have to become more involved in deciding suspensions, but I don’t think there is any way the problem can be solved with discipline.
The first step is to decide that the league really does want to solve the problem. They don’t. We know this because Gary Bettman was bragging about how hitting was up in the playoffs while the hits under review piled up on Shanahan’s desk. The league’s absurd position is that NHL hockey can keep the same level of physical play – 55,000 hits a year – while eliminating the 50 to 100 Raffi Torres moments.
Raffi Torres wanted to knock Hossa into next week but he did not want to take a penalty and he did not want to be suspended for 25 games. He misjudged the hit by a fraction and the result is another stretcher on the ice. If Aaron Rome had been a split second earlier his hit on Nathan Horton would have been perfectly legal. The line (that should never be crossed) is in fact a very fine one. Transgressions are inevitable no matter how heavy we make the suspensions. Mistakes are happening more frequently these days because the game has become much faster and hitters have less time to make a choice.
The NHL has to decide whether they are prepared to ratchet back on the physical play or whether they want to substantially reduce the concussion rate and substantially increase the emphasis on player safety. They cannot have it both ways. The strategy today is to continue to sell the gratuitous violence while pretending to address the problem by scapegoating the likes of Raffi Torres.
The real choice? Either we decide that hockey has become too dangerous and ratchet back to about 1990 levels of violence or we accept that every so often a player will make a mistake. We accept that there will be an occasional ugly incident. We accept and understand that Raffi Torres was trying to do what he is paid to do and simply made a mistake.
The league is pretending to address the problem because they believe – probably correctly – that the gratuitous violence puts money in the till. If the league really wanted to stop the concussion plague, they can do it quite easily, but they cannot do it and keep all the physicality of the modern game.
If the league did choose change two things are required:
1) Vigilante justice has to be eliminated. It is the responsibility of the officials, not the players, to police the game. What difference does it make if Duncan Keith concusses Daniel Sedin in a fight or with an elbow? If he wants to avenge a hit the officials chose not to punish, he’d better find a way to do it within the rules.
2) Reduce the number of hits – and the number of Raffi Torres mistakes – by properly interpreting interference. If a player gets rid of the puck before the defender commits to the hit, he should not be fair game. There is no hockey reason to allow a free shot when the puck is long gone.
The result would be a safer game without fighting and with about 75% of the hitting. The Raffi Torres and Todd Bertuzzi incidents would not entirely go away, but there would be a lot fewer of them.
I can understand why the league (and most fans) are not in favour of this kind of radical change. The fans want the big hits and the fights and the league wants the cash. Radical change won’t come soon unless the fear of lawsuits from damaged retired players changes the economic equation. Fair enough.
In the meantime, could we stop pretending that Raffi Torres is the problem and that crucifying Raffi Torres is actually addressing the issue? That might make the rest of us feel better about our bloodlust and feel less responsible for the brains being scrambled, but it doesn’t prevent more scrambling.
The issue isn’t that hard to understand or solve once we face up to the real choice. Are we asking too much of the players for the sake of our entertainment? If we are not willing to decide that the game has become too violent?
Keep the cash register ringing. String up Raffi Torres. That will work just like stringing up villains has worked in the past.
The wheels of the bus go round and round, eh Raffi?