NHL cracking down on violence -- finally

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

DENVER -- The National Hockey League is starting to get it right.

Everyone loves the physical side of hockey.

The fights. The big hits.

There's even a sick sort of fixation on the ugly incidents that nobody condones but also can't help but watch repeatedly on the sports network replays, or online after they're quickly posted by tech-savvy fans.

There will never come a time when reactionary stick-swinging or sucker punching is completely eliminated. The sport is too fast, too emotional, to guarantee nobody loses their cool during play.

But the hefty suspensions levied on two Philadelphia Flyers in the last few weeks shows the NHL is serious about doing what it can to make things safer for players.

Rookie Steve Downie's head hunting hit on Dean McAmmond in an exhibition match earned him 20 games before he'd even played his first of the regular-season in the NHL. Teammate Jesse Boulerice was handed a 25-game ban for a vicious cross-check to the jaw of Vancouver Canucks pest Ryan Kesler.

That latter suspension equalled the longest doled out for an on-ice infraction, matching Chris Simon's penalty for his two-hander to Ryan Hollweg's face last spring.

The message? Play hard, but play smart -- or pay the price.

"Twenty-five games to tie the longest suspension in league history, I think the league is stating acts like that have no place in hockey and they will be disciplined heavily," said Robyn Regehr, who had yet to see the Boulerice replay for himself, but was told it was brutal and is encouraged by the cost.

"The good part is players that are doing foolish things out there are getting suspended. That's going to protect the players. There are certain choices he could have made in that situation that wouldn't have got him suspended for 25 games."

If the NHL is making a statement, will the players who tend to play with that edge listen to the warning?

"It's a very big statement by the league on the last two suspensions on where they'd like to see the game go," Regehr said. "There's no room for acts like that in the game."

There's just one more precedent for the league to set.

That will come when the first 'star' player with no track record for violence commits a malicious act.

Without priors, he won't get the 20 or 25-game sentence.

Regehr points to the pair of one-game bans Anaheim Ducks star Chris Pronger received for getting his elbows high in last year's playoffs.

"You had one of the best players in the playoffs get suspended not once, but twice," he said. "So I think the league is serious about facing incidents like this. It doesn't sweep them under the carpet."


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