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Why the NHL didn't do right thing on the Raffi Torres hit

There is one television spot on Stanley Cup playoff games these days where the advertiser's annoying tagline - "Because it's the right thing to do" - has become as common as the worst of hockey clich├ęs.

Why, then, doesn't the NHL adopt it for its own?

The right thing to do in the case of the Raffi Torres' hit on Brent Seabrook would have been to suspend the Vancouver Canucks forward for several games or the rest of the playoffs. Torres has, after all, just returned from a four-game suspension for a similar hit on an Edmonton Oilers player. He is, like the charming Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a serial headhunter. And the NHL has just foolishly deleted the message it sent out last month when it suspended Cooke for the remainder of the season and the first round of the playoffs for an earlier headshot.

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The NHL, however, elected to do nothing to Torres for his hit Sunday on the Chicago Blackhawks defenceman. League officials took no action, they later stated, because hits that take place behind the net can be different from hits that take place elsewhere.

This, it turned out, was news to every player asked this day, none of whom were familiar with the league's stand that video had been sent out last year showing precisely such a hit to be a "legal play."

The NHL, in other words, chose to duck behind a technicality. Unfortunately, no one thought to look at this moment strategically rather than technically. There was a glorious opportunity here, barely into the first of the four rounds that will make up the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, to send a signal out that the league is serious in its stated intentions to make the game safer.

The NHL declared that there had been no infraction of Rule 48, the regulation pressed into service a year ago following a series of severe concussions to NHL players. That rule prohibits lateral or blindside hits where the head is targeted. "The hit," the league stated, "meets none of the criteria that would subject Torres to supplemental discipline, including an application of Rule 48."

Rather than waste space debating the physics of hockey - how, for example, can a hit to the head from behind the net be different from a hit to the head along the sideboards, especially for the head involved? - the NHL still had the option of turning to a myriad of other rulings. Rule 45.4, for example, addresses a situation where a player "attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent by elbowing." Other rules cover a wide variety of attempts to injure - though they are rarely, if ever, called.

How can it be, the curious among us will ask, that a player can be suspended for six games and sent off for anger management counselling for a boorish comment about another player's girlfriend, while Torres and a number of other players get absolutely nothing for threatening, and in some cases destroying, another player's career?

Matters have changed in hockey, just as they have in society. The Torres hit, even a few years back, would have been considered a good hockey play; Seabrook would have been the one blamed for having his head down.

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Back then, however, we did not know that the human brain cannot take such pounding without the possibility of severe repercussion. Society has changed from laughing at a player who had his bell rung to cringing every time a player, from professional to child, cracks head, helmet or chin. It is a pratfall that is no longer a joke.

Those who believe the truly manly among this man's game would shake it off and move on should meet Seabrook, as tough a player as the grinding Western Hockey League can produce.

It was clearly, Seabrook said Monday, a hit to the head delivered at a time when he was vulnerable and not in possession of the puck. "I've got the puck," he said, "I'm fair game.

"I think he kept his elbow in, but he hit the head first. As far as I'm concerned, that's the first thing I felt, it's the only thing I felt. The rest of my body is feeling the rest of it today, but ... last night, all I could really feel was my ear."

Teammate Duncan Keith called it "a blatant run" at Seabrook's head. "I don't know what he's thinking," Keith said, shaking his head. "It seems like he just got off a suspension on a hit that's similar."

In Seabrook's opinion, another suspension was warranted. "If the league's not going to suspend somebody for that," he said, "I just don't really understand that."

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Perhaps it was precisely because Seabrook is so obviously tough. He played shifts after the hit. He only went to the so-called quiet room for medical appraisal because he was ordered to. He came back to play the moment he was cleared. He seemed okay on Monday.

"They're trying to change the game and they're trying to take head hits out of the game," the 25-year-old said. "You've got to make the same suspension, the same judgment, whether he's lying there, taken off on a stretcher, or playing the next shift."

The NHL should have acted. If Rule 48 truly doesn't apply - difficult as that is to comprehend - then there were many other options available that could have sent out exactly the right message.

They could have signalled that the NHL is serious about moving on head shots. All head shots.


Because it's the right thing to do.

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