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Boston Bruins' Marc Savard lies on the ice after being hit by by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, (Keith Srakocic/Keith Srakocic/AP)
Boston Bruins' Marc Savard lies on the ice after being hit by by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, (Keith Srakocic/Keith Srakocic/AP)

Stephen Brunt

NHL ought to believe in its own game Add to ...

Here is the bind in which the NHL finds itself, a snare entirely of its own construction.

Matt Cooke levels Marc Savard with a predatory shot to the head that is self-evidently dirty in the eyes of just about everyone. The consequence of that hit is a second-degree concussion, which the public long ago came to understand is a heck of a lot more grave than "having your bell rung."

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The two referees in charge call no penalty because (as was confirmed upon extensive video review) what Cooke did does not contravene the rules as written. You can hit an opposing player in the head with your shoulder from the blindside, just as long as he has the puck or has just released it (obviously considerable grey area there), and there is no charging, etc, involved.



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But of course the NHL long ago decided that it required a secondary line of defence against wrongdoing, a review process left in the hands of the league's vice-principal, which must be just about the worst job on earth. Colin Campbell, the current occupant of that chair, gets it from all sides, is tied in knots by precedent (both those set by himself and by his predecessors), and in moments of crisis, is left all by himself to explain what cannot reasonably be explained.

Hence Cooke walking away scot-free, hence the predictable outrage, and hence the beginnings of a new rule from the general managers, designed to eliminate such occurrences - a rule which still has a ways to go before becoming the law of the game and which seems on first reading rather toothless.

Meanwhile, the commissioner and the GMs get the heck out of Dodge, leaving Campbell to do the talking, while the leaderless players' association is mute.

It really shouldn't be so tough.

The NHL and its players presumably have convictions about right and wrong, and now that they've stopped trying to defend the indefensible, why not get out front and express them while also striking a note of realism about what society is prepared to accept in the name of sports entertainment and what risks professional athletes are willing to endure?

Let's be honest here. For all of the new awareness, is there really zero tolerance for head injuries in pro sports?

Hardly.

If there were, 51,000 people wouldn't have turned out to see Manny Pacquiao do his thing in Texas Stadium on Saturday night, bars wouldn't be packed for the latest UFC pay-per-view card, and professional football, for all of its equipment improvements and 15-yard penalties, would be a very different game indeed. You'll see safety measures taken in all of those sports, you'll see protective gear employed, medical personnel standing by, in the NFL's case anti-headshot rules in place - and you are also guaranteed to see concussions.

Will hockey ever be concussion free? Not a chance. It is a game of contact in which bodychecking is essential, and in which fistfights are tolerated. That, plus sticks, plus ice, plus speed, plus players moving more freely now that some of the obstruction has been eliminated, means that collisions will happen and brain injuries will happen, unless the fundamental nature of the sport is changed to make it look more like ringette.

Even if a considerable number of people would be happy to see the fights gone, no one really wants that.

(Though someone in the NHL ought to take a hard look at the body armour players are wearing, the way they did, finally, with goaltender's equipment, to understand whether it's exacerbating the problem.)

What the commissioner and someone from the phantom players' association need to say, as a matter of principle, is to acknowledge the risks, acknowledge the nature of the sport without apology, and at the same time explain that the day is over when a player's head can be targeted as a means of intimidation, for tactical advantage, to "send a message," or even by accident.

The hit can come from behind, from the side, or from straight ahead, the victim can see it coming or be blindsided: that shouldn't, and can't matter. Forget about intent because who really knows. Give the refs and Campbell a break by specifically linking action and consequence. (And don't even think about returning to the world in which the boys were allowed to settle it among themselves, deterring players from causing brain injuries by allowing other players to punch them in the head.)

In other words, lead instead of simply reacting every time a player is carried off on a stretcher and the national hand wringing begins.

Believe in something, beginning with your own game. That ought to be where it starts.

 

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