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(Nathan Denette)
(Nathan Denette)

Roy MacGregor

Cormier hit gives hockey a chance to learn 'valuable lesson' Add to ...

Such a difference in 12 days.

On Jan. 5, Patrice Cormier, the 19-year-old pride of Cap-Pelé, N.B., skated out in a thunderclap of cheers onto the ice in Saskatoon, the proud captain of Team Canada ready to play the United States for the gold medal.

On Jan. 17, Patrice Cormier skated, under stunned silence, off the ice in Rouyn-Noranda for likely the last time he will ever play junior hockey in a country that worships the game after he all but beheaded 18-year-old Mikael Tam, a Quebec City opponent, with a vicious and deliberate elbow.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League suspended Cormier Monday for the remainder of the season and the playoffs - a penalty considered steep by hockey standards, relatively shallow by society standards and, perhaps, inadequate by legal standards. The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police, are still investigating the possibility of laying charges.

The story, however, should not end there. It was being told long before Cormier's right elbow left Tam convulsing on the ice and it will have to be told again before some appropriate conclusion can be written in what has become the national game's dark chapter: violent hits to the head, both legal and illegal by hockey's definition, unacceptable by any definition that includes quality of life.

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The Cormier hit is also a knock to the game wherever it is played. While 5.3-million Canadians watched the culmination of the World Junior Hockey Championship, in which the Canadian captain was largely invisible, he can now only wish he remained invisible after untold thousands around the world have watched the Internet replays of Cormier leaping from the bench and keying in like a Scud missile on Tam, who never saw it coming because, of course, it had nothing to do with the game Tam believed was being played.

Surely, the season-long suspension was the very least that could be expected; unfortunately, it was likely also the most that could be done. Though Cormier has a year of junior eligibility left, the New Jersey Devils' draft pick is almost certain to be back playing, perhaps professionally, in a short while.

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello's initial reaction bordered on the ludicrous - saying he didn't think the hit warranted punishment - but by yesterday had come to his own senses and announced the Devils would honour the suspension. He also said he hoped that the youngster "will have learned a valuable lesson."

But what of hockey itself? Will it ever learn?

Cormier's hit is hardly unique, but it is notable in that it stands as the perfect repudiation of the "safety valve" argument in support of keeping hockey ridiculously rough as well as acceptably tough. This was hardly "heat of the moment" - Cormier had been sitting on the bench - and does not require a second viewing to see it for what it was: a premeditated attack.

He says he had no "intention of hurting anyone." He says he was only trying to check Tam and the elbow was an unfortunate "reflex." Sure, Patrice.

NHLers widely agreed it was a "dirty" hit and required punishment. There was also a small sense that this hit might prove pivotal in finally bringing about some action - at higher levels of the game as well as lower.

"Juniors are setting precedents with these type of hits," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "So I think they're seeing a message, and hopefully the players in our league learn."

"The longer the suspension," said Ryan Smyth of the Los Angeles Kings, "the players are going to try and think a little bit more."

But it will take more than just players thinking about it. Far more important than anything junior hockey or even the courts can do to Cormier is what hockey can and should do to itself.

Surely by now there are simply no arguments to be made in favour of hits to the head. How many Reggie Fleming brains do we need to dissect before admitting the obvious? Heads have to be protected as much as possible in hockey, just as they are in so many other tough sports.

Accidents will happen, of course, but this argument holds no water: If you accidentally clip an opponent with a high stick you still get a penalty; if you accidentally shoot the puck over the boards in your own end, you still get a penalty. Why treat accidental head shots any different?

It will soon be three years since Buffalo Sabres' owner Thomas Golisano demanded that the NHL "immediately" address the rising issue of "hits to the head" and the epidemic of concussions, so many of them career ending.

The NHL, of course, did nothing.

Earlier this season Philadelphia's Mike Richards - with a hit that was not penalized - gave Florida's David Booth a concussion that still keeps Booth out of the lineup and cost the rising U.S. star an Olympic chance.

Prodded by this earlier incident, NHL general managers said they were studying the issue and will discuss it further in early March.

What on earth is there left to study?

No one knows what, if anything, will be done, but at least the Cormier incident has even tough players saying out loud that such head shots should have no place in the game.

"Hopefully," said Toronto defenceman Mike Komisarek, "something will be done soon - because you can't continue with guys carted off."

With a report from David Shoalts in Toronto

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