NHL gambling with the health of its stars

Sidney Crosby, arguably the games' best player, was the victim of a seemingly accidental Dave...

Sidney Crosby, arguably the games' best player, was the victim of a seemingly accidental Dave Steckel hit to the jaw during the Winter Classic, a blow that left him with a sore neck. (Tony Caldwell/QMI AGENCY)

GEORGE POPALIS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 11:37 AM ET

TORONTO -- While the NHL has spent years dancing around the subject of hits to the head, the implementation of a new rule last October designed to curb these dangerous blows was a step in the right direction.

But did it go far enough?

The current rule states that illegal checks to the head, defined as "a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted," will now be subject to a five- minute major penalty and automatic game misconduct, as well as possible supplemental discipline if deemed appropriate by the League.

While a five-minute penalty and automatic game misconduct is a stiffer penalty than no penalty at all, which was the previous case; it is not severe enough to change the mindset of the players who continue to play with reckless abandon.

Sidney Crosby, arguably the games' best player, was the victim of a seemingly accidental Dave Steckel hit to the jaw during the Winter Classic, a blow that left him with a sore neck. A game later he was driven face-first into the boards by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, a head-blow that compounded the original hit and produced concussion-like symptoms.

Although the concussion suffered is said to be mild, a close call like this with the league's brightest young star is unacceptable. Crosby's status is still indefinite and considering he was in the midst of the best campaign since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, the time missed is a complete shame.

So what did the NHL do about the Hedman hit? Absolutely nothing.

He wasn't penalized under the new rule, and as for possible supplemental discipline if deemed appropriate by the League, that didn't happen either. No suspensions, no fines, no accountability. Hedman was allowed to continue on like nothing happened, another great opportunity missed by league disciplinarian Colin Campbell to get the point across to the players that these hits will not be tolerated.

It's not really surprising though when you consider Campbell's unresponsive history in dealing with these types of issues.

Last year, Boston Bruins All-Star Marc Savard was the victim of an unsuspecting shoulder to the head by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. Seeing him motionless on the ice was a troubling scene, but obviously not troubling enough to suspend or fine Cooke for the incident. Savard suffered a grade-two concussion as a result of the blow and missed the remainder of last season, only returning to action in the playoffs two months after the hit. Campbell blamed the fact that no rule against the offense at the time meant there could be no punishment.

But what excuse does he have for the Crosby situation in which no penalties, fines or suspensions were levied?

With Savard sufficiently recovered to resume his NHL career and Crosby on the mend, the end result of both situations is far from catastrophic.

But not all players are so lucky.

The potential career ending nature of these types of hits are exhibited to perfection when looking at a player like Eric Lindros.

Termed the "Next One" in the 90s, Lindros jumped onto the scene, quickly becoming one of the elite players in the game. A true superstar during his short NHL career, he would miss significant time due to concussions and eventually retire thanks to the elbow of Scott Stevens.

At the time, Lindros was ridiculed in some circles, even called soft for not playing in spite of his debilitating symptoms. But that isn't the case today, as people have now come to understand the devastating nature of concussions. And while the NHL has tried to remedy the growing trend of head injuries, it has failed to adequately punish the offenders that continue to put their peers in danger.

Players must be forced to respect the head and the only way to do that is to assess significant suspensions for the infraction. There should be, at minimum, a five-game suspension without pay for the dangerous blow, with increased suspension time doled out for more severe cases or repeat offenders.

If the current disciplinary staff is not capable of taking this type of hard- nosed approach, they should be replaced. Because it's only a matter of time before a Sidney Crosby becomes the next Eric Lindros.


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