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The Buffalo Sabres and concussed goaltender Ryan Miller still can't understand why Boston's Milan Lucic escaped punishment for last weekend's hit. (AP Photo/David Duprey) (David Duprey/AP)
The Buffalo Sabres and concussed goaltender Ryan Miller still can't understand why Boston's Milan Lucic escaped punishment for last weekend's hit. (AP Photo/David Duprey) (David Duprey/AP)

Roy MacGregor

NHL head-shot crackdown fades away Add to ...

It is called “slippage.” We have seen it before. We are seeing it now. We will unfortunately see it again.

The hockey “crackdown” has been around longer than the slap shot or the forward pass. In the first decade of the 20th century, several players were killed by violent stick work, leading to two players being charged with manslaughter – Allan Loney for allegedly clubbing to death Alcide Laurin, Charles Masson after Owen McCourt died of a head wound sustained in a brawl – but both were found not guilty and few promises to clean up the game were ever kept.

One long-time hockey executive lamented this week that he had seen crackdowns follow the 1969 Ted Green-Wayne Maki stick-swinging brawl, the 1975 Dave Forbes assault on Henry Boucha, even the Christmas 1979 incident when the Boston Bruins’ Mike Milbury went into the stands at Madison Square Garden and attacked a fan with his own shoe.

“The crackdowns were momentary,” the executive laments. Lots of talk, some early action, and then slippage.

Long before 2005’s postlockout crackdown on obstruction – which suffers its own irrational slippage each Stanley Cup final – the NHL committed itself to changing the way the game was being called on the ice.

It was at the end of the dismal 1991-92 season, a year that saw a players’ strike, delayed playoffs and collapsing television viewership. There was rising concern about player safety, highlighted by a slash that broke Mario Lemieux’s hand in the playoffs. “It’s too dangerous to go out there now with the rules the way they are,” Lemieux said.

Acting NHL president Gil Stein argued, “We need to blow away the clouds to see the stars,” and the owners seemed to agree. They threw out some odd ideas – a much larger net, a suggestion that more players go helmetless in an effort to increase fan identification – and brought in new rulings on such matters as highsticking and holding the stick. They even sent out a video showing how skill would be rewarded, interference punished.

Predictably, the 1992 exhibition season was chaos with endless penalties, the players adjusted, as they always do, and soon slippage began showing up.

Pierre Pagé, coach of the highly skilled Quebec Nordiques, was first to sound the alarm. “It’s gradually coming back,” he said. Calgary Flames coach Dave King concurred. By December, outspoken St. Louis Blues star Brett Hull was calling the crackdown “a joke – they put in all these new rules and now there are no rules.” By spring, the once-so-promising Nordiques quickly fell in the playoffs.

Fast forward to the 2011-12 season and a new crackdown is on, this one aimed at preventing shots to the head. The league even hired a new head of discipline in Brendan Shanahan, and Shanahan moved promptly and impressively in the exhibition season, handing out numerous suspensions and sending out an unmistakable signal that times had changed. Player safety was a league priority.

Despite early complaints from players and their general managers, Shanahan held his position. To his credit, concussions today are, by his tally, only half what they were just last year.

Yet there remains this gnawing sense of slippage. First there was the elbow to the head of Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson by the New York Rangers’ Wojtek Wolski, a dirty hit – Wolski was penalized by the on-ice officials – that left Alfredsson concussed. Shanahan, however, deemed it a “hockey hit” – an elbow to the head, remember – and ruled no suspension.

One general manager, Ottawa’s Bryan Murray, disagreed. No surprise there. Murray felt, as did many who saw the hit, that Wolski had gone out of his way to make contact, and the fact that it was an elbow to the head more or less automatically called for subsequent action as well as the on-ice penalty.

Then came the hit on Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller. Anyone who has played the game at any competitive level knows that huge Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic could have avoided the hit – or at the very least cushioned it to protect Miller – but he did no such thing. Miller is now out with a concussion. And enough general managers have made it clear that they fully expected a suspension, which did not happen.

“I saw nothing egregious about this hit that would elevate it to supplemental discipline,” Shanahan said.

While the Alfredsson decision might have been partially moot, the Miller decision was simply ludicrous. Shanahan accepted Lucic’s claim that the impact was unavoidable.

“Lucic could have avoided the collision,” the long-time executive says. “The big difference is the lack of respect of players for their peers.”

If that is indeed the case, then respect must be enforced. Shanahan did himself a favour this week by suspending St. Louis forward Chris Stewart for three games for a rather incomprehensible hit from behind – did he miss the videos? – on Detroit Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall.

Still, we are clearly in the realm of mixed signals now.

And the red flag of slippage has once again been raised.

Roy MacGregor’s hockey column appears regularly in the Tuesday and weekend editions of The Globe and Mail, and otherwise at random.

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