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Rome's vicious hit demands strong NHL response

Rome will burn. Or at the very least, he will be singed by the NHL justice system, such as it is.

In a season when no single issue has dominated the NHL's agenda like head shots and in a season when commissioner Gary Bettman took the unprecedented step of unveiling a new player safety department on the eve of the Stanley Cup final, how else can the NHL respond but to throw the book at Vancouver Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome for his vicious and late hit that levelled Nathan Horton of the Boston Bruins on Monday night in Game 3 here?

The concussive force of the blow to Horton's head left him sprawled on the ice, dazed, his eyes glazed, unmoving. As silence settled over TD Garden, the outcome of the Bruins' biggest game of the season - the third of the 2011 Stanley Cup final - was suddenly a lesser consideration, secondary to the health of their teammate.

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Attendants carefully braced Horton's neck, gingerly lifted him onto a stretcher and then wheeled him off the ice so that he could be transported to Massachusetts General Hospital. The preliminary reports issued by the team said only that Horton was moving his extremities, so paralysis at least was ruled out.

These being the playoffs, it is unlikely that any sort of firm concussion diagnosis will be immediately forthcoming either. But this was not the sort of incident the NHL needed now, not with interest in the sport at record levels, with television viewers on both sides of the border flocking to watch what is turning into a close and riveting Stanley Cup final.

So even if the NHL has a long history of sluggishly doling out the suspensions come playoff time, expect a penalty with some teeth. A penalty that will raise awareness. A penalty that will force NHL players to sit up and take notice. A penalty that - once and for all - sends a message that you cannot unload on a vulnerable player, when he isn't in possession of the puck and hasn't been for what amounted to a hockey-playing eternity.

Making it worse, if anything could, hockey fans in Boston have seen this solemn moment unfold far too often in the recent past. Remember Marc Savard? Savard hasn't been the same player since a blind-side sit to the head from Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins left with him concussion symptoms so bad that his career is in jeopardy. How about Patrice Bergeron? Bergeron is playing in these playoffs, but only have a lengthy convalescence recovering from a serious concussion that he received on a hit from Randy Jones of the Philadelphia Flyers in October of 2007.

And lest we forget, the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, only just received medical clearance to resume his summer workout program from the Penguins' doctors a few days ago. Crosby didn't play a game in the second half of the season, after suffering a concussion in the Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals.

In the third round of the playoffs, Rome was himself the victim of a hit by the San Jose Sharks winger Jamie McGinn that left him bleeding from the face as he left the ice. McGinn received a major and a game misconduct on the play; Rome did not play the final two games of the series. Don't these guys ever learn?

The NHL supplementary discipline process is in a state of flux right now. The long-time czar of discipline, Colin Campbell, was not going to be involved in this series anyway because his son, Gregory, plays for the Bruins. Mike Murphy, second in command in hockey operations, will review Rome's hit on Horton. Next year, they'll hand off the duties to Brendan Shanahan, who will be in charge of the player safety department.

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Last week, Bettman said it was his "hope and expectation" that supplementary discipline will be ramped up as long as the players' association is onside with the policy change.

"If there's certain conduct that we want to see out of the game, then we've got to make sure we do what's necessary," Bettman said. "[With]discipline, people like to focus on punishment. I'd rather focus on using the supplemental discipline mechanism to better promote player safety."

If they're serious about promoting player safety, then there's no better time to start than right now.

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