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Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke speaks at a year end press briefing in Toronto on Tuesday April 12, 2011. (Chris Young)
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke speaks at a year end press briefing in Toronto on Tuesday April 12, 2011. (Chris Young)

Jeff Blair

Time for NHL to take off the blinkers Add to ...

If Aaron Rome's four-game suspension is some kind of seminal disciplinary moment for the NHL, then it speaks volumes about the degree to which the league remains a mom-and-pop operation.

Bad enough that Mike Murphy sought advice from a general manager with a vested interest in the outcome of the series before swallowing hard and ridding the game of the kind of minimally talented player so often at the core of on-ice assaults.

Equally telling was Murphy equating Rome having to miss the rest of the playoffs for delivering a late hit, to the absence of Nathan Horton due to that hit.

"Guys play all their lives to get to this series, and you might never get back," Murphy said. "I wish I wasn't sitting here. I wish Aaron was playing, and I wish Nathan was playing."

Translation: "It pains me to have to do my job. I feel as bad for the perpetrator as I do for the victim. It's a bitch what happened to Horty, but, geez, poor Romer. 'Cause he's a good guy - no, a great guy."

Now, I'm not going to hop on board the Canucks' lunatic conspiracy bandwagon. I will take the NHL at its word that outgoing chief of discipline Colin Campbell, whose son plays for Boston, really has turned in his BlackBerry to retire about three years too late - not realizing he was in a conflict-of-interest situation until young Gregory made his way to the Stanley Cup final, and well after he was caught sending messages to referees about his son's opponents. And I won't sit here and tell you that it was anything other than a tone-deaf and, frankly, unnecessary revelation by Murphy that before rendering judgment, he had consulted Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who filled the role of chief NHL disciplinarian in a previous life but was also:

1) Fired by the Canucks.

2) Fined by the NHL for tampering with the Canucks'Daniel and Henrik Sedin just before they became free agents.

A conspiracy? No. Burke's too smart for that. I'll accept without question Burke's e-mail response to various reporters that his input was "procedural." If anything, Burke would err on the side of being too-principled. If it was me, I would have told Murphy to throw out the Sedins and Kesler, too.

The NHL had this coming, of course, because it's turned the asylum over to the ex-inmates. It has wrung its collective hands and furrowed its brow over every single disciplinary issue all season. It is telling that so many of the leagues apologists tut-tutted over the four-game suspension - they thought it would only be two - even as the Canucks predictably babbled on about north-south hits. Because that's how the NHL does business: it sees events through the eyes of the perpetrator.

Because deep down all the ex-players making these decisions think everybody's a good guy. We are under the tyranny of sorts of ex-players, and if you think Brendan Shanahan's going to bring any other sensibility to the equation, you are sadly mistaken. His first instinct will be: 'Well, I remember being in the same situation and I hit a guy the same way …' What else do you expect? What other pool of knowledge do these guys have?

The NHL isn't the only sport that loads up on ex-players in its front office - although none are as blatant in using it as a labour weapon, creating make-work projects to suck in players who might otherwise spend their retirement helping the NHL Players' Association - but it is one of the few leagues that puts them in positions to make decisions on life-and-death issues; on matters of medical importance that also have quasi-legal overtones. This is a sport that is marching slowly towards producing a generation of cripples who will be ingesting food through a straw, yet is all too willing to hand over decisions to guys named Colie, Murph and now Shanny.

Here's something: how about putting the decision in the hands of people with medical and legal training, who aren't part owner of teams or used to work for teams or are golf buddies with Gary Bettman or have kids who play with teams? How about putting the decision in the hands of somebody who can analyze a play without remembering what it was like to run a guy into the boards after the other player turns his back? How about the suits at the board of governors level saying no shot to the head will be tolerated, imposing draconian financial and service-time fines on players and coaches and teams and instituting a system where teams lose draft picks for repeated transgressions? How about hiring people who can look at a video and say: "We don't allow shots to the head or blind-side hits or hitting players without the puck or late hits. Hmm … that's a head-shot. See ya, big fellow - you're gone for 15 games."

That Murphy called Burke before rendering judgment is a sign of a guy who panicked under pressure, who turtled in a big moment. That Murphy felt any sense of remorse at all at in suspending Rome for an unnecessary hit on a player who didn't have the puck - one that sent the player to hospital - is more telling. Time to put some smart people in the saddle, Gary. Time to look outside the game.

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