With the spotlight shining on the Central Canada Hockey League for all the wrong reasons, league brass had an opportunity to send a strong message around the hockey world that predatory headshots, cheapshots and goonery are no longer tolerated.
The March 13 playoff game between the Cornwall Colts and Kanata Stallions started with a bang — one that left Stallions goaltender Scott Shackell lying unconscious on the ice, concussed, prompting an assault investigation by Cornwall cops — then devolved into a gong show of on-ice thuggery.
With Cornwall routing the visitors late in the game, 6-foot-6, 225-pound Colts defenceman Matthew Zanardo, apparently upset at absorbing a check from 5-foot-10 Brandon Bussey, stalked the smaller Stallions forward around the ice before delivering a spear to the gut and a gloved sucker punch to the head.
Falling face-first to the ice, Bussey, defenceless, was felled again by a vicious two-handed cross-check across the back of his neck.
After deliberating for more than three days — including an extensive review of game footage and interviews with coaches, referees and the penalized players — commissioner Kevin Abrams and league disciplinarian Bruce Baskin delivered their verdict.
Michael Borkowski, who escaped criminal charges for his blindside hit on Shackell, is now eligible to play after serving his two-game ban. The league ruled Borkowski did not intend to inflict injury by charging the goaltender, but said “contact could have been avoided.”
Despite the league recognizing the “predatory nature” of Zanardo’s behaviour and ruling “there was intent and the potential for serious injury existed,” he was handed a seven-game suspension.
Not nearly enough.
The CCHL only needed to look down the road to the world’s premier developmental league — the Ontario Hockey League — for a lesson in what David Branch calls “responsibility.”
On Wednesday, the iron-fisted OHL commissioner banned Ottawa native Tim Billingsley for 10 games — including the first seven games of the Niagara IceDogs playoff run — for his March 11, open-ice check that knocked Ottawa 67’s Shane Prince out cold before his head hit even the ice.
On-ice officials didn’t think that hit warranted a penalty, and in an interview Wednesday with The Team 1200, Branch admitted there was no intent to injure.
“We have a responsibility to create an environment where (young hockey players) can play the game without fear of needless injury,” said Branch, adding the league has no interest in eliminating the physicality of the sport.
“But we’re starting to see now that more and more leagues at all levels are recognizing that, you know what, we’ve got an issue in our game with head checks, and we have to take action.”
A day earlier, and with the NHL’s board of governors convening with headshots topping the agenda, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk didn’t mince words in an interview with Toronto’s Fan 590.
“You hit a guy in the head: You’re gone and I mean gone,” said Melnyk. “A deliberate hit, you don’t play hockey anymore.”
Now that would send a message.