Defending the Indefensible: How NHL Teams are Helping Contribute to Injury Epidemic

Heading into the All-Star break, it’s kind of hard not to think about the first half and all that it brought. There was plenty of great hockey played this year, but when many fans look back on this half season, there might be more bad than good.

A lot of that has to do with the rash of concussions and other injuries caused by illegal and reckless hits. Through very little fault of its own, the NHL’s image has taken a serious hit. Why do all these guys keep getting hurt at such an alarming and seemingly unprecedented rate?

The NHL looks helpless in its efforts to curtail such injuries. Suspensions have unfortunately done little to limit the number of illegal and injurious hits, leaving the league to wonder what it can possibly do next.

Brendan Shanahan has handed down 35 suspensions so far this season. THIRTY FIVE. That’s a pretty alarming number. More alarming though is that many players haven’t gotten the point.

One reason might be the fact that many of the individual teams often take a counterproductive stance in regards to supplementary discipline.

As soon as Shanahan levies his punishment, on many occasions, the NHL club of the offending player will issue a terse statement, or address the media saying they disagree with the suspension. It is certainly their right to do so. They have to stick up for their player. That said, the teams are showing a blatant disregard for why these suspensions are being handed down.

By excusing and defending the actions of the players committing these infractions, that sometimes cause injury, the teams are basically excusing the offending player of any wrongdoing. That, in itself, is wrong. It in some ways goes against the fight to curtail injuries and better protect players, or in monetary terms, assets.

Conversely, on hits that may or may not be dirty against one of their own players, the line becomes blurred apparently. On any borderline hit on one of their own, coaches and GMs will call for a suspension in post-game remarks, demanding Shanahan throw the book at the offending player. That’s happened too many times to count, but when it’s their guy getting disciplined, it’s not OK?

In two cases where illegal hits were delivered right down to the letter of the law, NHL teams offered significant rebuttals and the offending players had felt they were in no way wrong.

The first was Brad Marchand’s clipping of Sami Salo:

In response to the five-game suspension handed down by Brendan Shanahan, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli released the following statement:

“While we respect the process that the Department of Player Safety took to reach their decision regarding Brad’s hit on Sami Salo, we are very disappointed by their ruling.

“…Given our feeling that Brad was indeed protecting himself and certainly did not clip the player as he contacted the player nowhere near the knee or quadricep, today’s ruling is not consistent with what the Department of Player Safety communicated to Brad.”

Ignore the fact that Chiarelli is apparently unfamiliar with the human body and the location of knees and quadriceps, this is excusing and vehemently defending a player that clearly acted with recklessness. Shanahan’s lengthy and thorough explanation of the hit was more than fair in regards to Marchand.

Salo ended up with a concussion, adding him to an all-too-long list of NHL players suffering from such an injury.

The next, and most recent, instance of a player clearly violating the rules of the game was Alex Ovechkin’s charging Zbynek Michalek.

Ovechkin leaves his feet and makes contact with Michalek’s head, which subsequently made contact with the glass. Michalek was not injured on the play, but this is the exact type of hit that can often lead to a head injury and should be avoided at all cost. Shanahan reacted accordingly, giving Ovechkin a three-game ban.

Caps GM George McPhee, one of the smartest people working in hockey, had this to say to reporters about Ovechkin’s hit and suspension:

“I was surprised and disappointed. I didn’t anticipate he’d be suspended for three games. We presented our case to the league yesterday and I thought we did real well, but didn’t get the result we wanted.”

This doesn’t necessarily excuse Ovechkin, but it was clear that the team made an effort to get him excused. The issue? The hit was inexcusable by pretty much any standards and the Department of Player Safety responded in an appropriate manner.

However, the most disappointing, yet unsurprising, reaction came from Ovechkin himself, as told to the Washington Post’s Katie Carrera:

“My game is play physical, my game is play hard, and I don’t think it was bad hit, dirty hit. Yeah, I jumped, but he don’t get hurt. I don’t get two minutes. I don’t think it was three-game suspension.”

Ovechkin says that he doesn’t think it’s a dirty hit, then explains in plain terms exactly why it is a dirty hit. Ovechkin admits he left his feet, normally a two-minute penalty at the least, but also a penalty that has led to supplemental discipline for other players.

The notion that because Michalek was not injured, there shouldn’t be a suspension is also a problem. Ovechkin is quite lucky Michalek was not significantly injured on the play. With the way things have gone this season, it’s hard to believe he skated away when so many others have not.

The NHL can’t wait for players to get hurt, because sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t. It is the league’s duty to continually enforce its rules and discipline players that act with recklessness, and so far Shanahan’s department has been doing that.

This is where the learning process needs to speed up for the players. Hits do not have to result in injury for them to be dangerous. Even when they do result in injury, players refuse to alter the way they play the game. Which is fine.

Don’t alter the way you play the game, but play the game within the rules. Blindside hits, checks from behind, charging, elbowing and the lot are outside the rules. Matt Cooke has become the poster child for still playing the game hard, but going out of his way almost to be a clean player (#CookeTheByng).

If leaving his feet is the way a player plays the game, then he should keep being suspended until he stops doing it.  I love the way Ovechkin plays. He’s one of the most exciting guys in the league and I hope he always remains a physical presence, but leaving his feet with his speed and size could do some serious damage

When a player commits many of these infractions, it is not because of the way the game is played, it’s because the player has made a choice.

Marchand made a choice to go low. Ovechkin made a choice to leave his feet. It was not a reaction or a result of the speed of the game. That is where important differences must be drawn. Players are making reckless and dangerous choices that could result in the injury to an opponent. These reckless and dangerous choices are then being defended by the team and the individual players that commit them.

If the teams disagree with the length of a suspension, that’s one thing, but for a GM to say he disagrees with a decision without admitting that his player was at fault of an infraction sends the wrong message to the player and a worse message to the public.

These statements by the general managers communicate to the public that they are satisfied with the choices their player makes, regardless of it being good or bad (unless that player declines a visit to the White House, of course) and regardless of it resulting in injury or not.

When Alexander Ovechkin describes the play and later says it was not dirty, when it in fact was, that’s where the alarm bells go off and makes one wonder if this is a cultural issue within the game. If a player is satisfied with his decision to play the game hard, but also on the edge of or outside the rules, something has to be done or there will be more seasons like this in which dozens of players and hundreds of man hours are lost to both injury and suspension.

It has become abundantly clear that there is no black and white in on-ice incidents. Everything is open to interpretation, however the thorough suspension explanations, the time and energy put into each decision and the transparency with which the Department of Player Safety operates is as good as the NHL can get right now in my opinion.

The Department is not without flaw and may battle consistency issues from time to time, however, Shanahan and his staff have been more right than wrong. I think that earns them the benefit of the doubt in most cases.

Injuries will never be out of the game, no matter what legislation you put in place or what disciplinary actions you take. However, the Department of Player Safety is doing its best to teach players right from wrong.

It is the teams that are excusing and defending the behavior and choices that has helped contribute to the NHL’s injury epidemic. Unless they change their tune, there will continue to be injuries, suspensions and black eyes for the NHL.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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One Response to Defending the Indefensible: How NHL Teams are Helping Contribute to Injury Epidemic

  1. Martin Breen says:

    Chris, terrific discussion and analysis. First, I think the NHL’s actions are on player safety are necessary just like they are in the NFL. When you are attempting to change behaviors it will take a while. Although I have already seen many NHL players not check a player from behind so some simple “bad” checks are already being deterred. Also keep in mind that, this NHL player safety model needs to be pushed down to yourh hockey, midget and juniors and this is not happening.

    This may be a huge mistake in years to come. It is these formative years where behaviors can really be changed. At every hockey tourney I attend I see numerous danagerous and illegal hits. Many of them uncalled.

    On the two hits: Marchand’s hit is very different than Ovechkin’s.

    Ovechkin’s is clearly dangerous and illegal. In fact, it’s completely gratutious since the puck is already gone and Ove just wants to inflict some pain. This is the exact kind of check you should want out of the game. And, the Caps should be fined for making public statements defending it (like saying something about the bad refs). They can defend it in private but not in public because it sends the wrong message to future players.

    The Marchand hit is completely different since he is clearly protecting himself from a player who is 8 inches taller and weighs 80 pounds more. I know the NHL is calling these “going low” hits penalties but as a former small player, what would they like us to do? When I played, it was the only advantage I had over a big player. In fact, all I would do (is exactly what Marchand did) is go low (without my knee touching the ground) and let the big guy kill himself trying to check me into oblivvion. This is called self preservation and should not be illegal. I guarantee you that in the future that big player will think twice about running a smaller player.

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