NHL's headshot suspensions are still too light
On the day word leaked out that Blake Geoffrion is being forced to consider retirement because of the fractured skull he suffered in an AHL game in November, the NHL handed down a four-game suspension to Corey Perry for his hit on Minnesota's Jason Zucker.
Unlike Geoffrion -- who had a piece of his skull pierce his brain and required emergency surgery to save his life -- Zucker, who did not return to the game after Perry's hit, was back skating in a tracksuit after the Wild practiced on Wednesday.
But Zucker, who has a history of concussion problems, won't play on Thursday night against Colorado, and we hope he doesn't develop symptoms during the next day or so. As we now know, they can arise quite some time after an incident if they don't do so immediately. If that's why Zucker will not dress when the Avalanche come to town, as a precaution against doing further damage, it's a wise move on someone's part and it would represent quite a departure from the usual mindset in which a player who has taken a hit to the head wants to be back in action as quickly as possible and so does his team. That thinking has been costly in the past to Sidney Crosby, among others.
There are all sorts of debates that we can have about Perry's hit. We can talk about whether there is a different standard for star players and if the NHL goes easier on its marquee names when handing out supplemental discipline.
We can talk about whether the fact that Perry had a prior offense should matter, even though his previous suspension was in 2009 and outside the NHL's 18-month statute of limitations on what constitutes a repeat offender.
We can -- as Al Muir did on SI.com -- talk about the concept of Zucker admiring his pass and how much the victim is to blame for this hit. (Al recognizes that is "wrong-headed thinking because all it does is validate opportunistic predation. Once a player has given up possession, he should have a reasonable expectation that he won't be destroyed by a late hit.")
We can talk about whether Perry's hit was dirty or not, whether he intended to hurt Zucker or if it was just a reckless act. Perry told Eric Stephens of The Orange County Register that that it was "a reaction" and "I'm not a person to go out there and hurt people and hope that they're out for a while."
The NHL believes there was no malicious intent, as Rob Blake says in his video explanation of the league's ruling.
But NBC's Pierre McGuire is having none of it. On his Team 1200 segment on Thursday morning, he told hosts John "JR" Rodenburg and Steve Warne, "He can say whatever he wants in a hearing with Rob Blake, I totally understand; that's well within his right -- and I like Corey Perry -- but that was a kill shot. He saw that was a vulnerable player. Jason Zucker was a vulnerable player and he was going for the kill shot. And he took it. And he put the kid out. He knew. He knew exactly what was going on."
We can, of course, always talk about whether four games is enough. Debating the length of a suspension is a favorite pastime of professional and amateur hockey watchers everywhere. McGuire thinks five games would have been an appropriate number, and there are any number of places where fans can have their own say on how long a ban they feel is appropriate; Justin Bourne does that regularly on his Backhand Shelf blog in his "Court of Public Opinion" feature.
But at the core of all discussion is this question: What is the NHL trying to accomplish when it suspends a player, and do these rulings serve that goal?
Obviously, the entire notion of supplemental discipline is to extend the punishment of a player who has crossed the line of acceptable behavior on the ice. He may or may not have received a penalty (or two) for his act, but if what he did was severe enough, the league feels that more should be done.
Why? Because the NHL doesn't want him to do it again and doesn't want other players to make the same mistake. It's why the Department of Player Safety produces videos and tries to educate the hockey community on what is and is not legal. As we've noted before, the videos are great educational tools.
But beyond education, the league wants fines and suspensions to act as a deterrent. The NHL has a long history of ramping up punishments if it wants to remove something from the game. When stick fights, which had long been common, resulted in a skull fracture and brain damage to Boston's Ted Green in 1969, the league toughened the rules and those incidents vanished. The bench-clearing brawls of the '70s disappeared as well when the league passed severe prohibitions, adding fines and very long suspensions --10 games -- for coming off the bench to fight.
But while the NHL does want to remove hits to the head from the game, it has a harder time making suspensions long enough to truly discourage such acts. Giving a four-game ban to Perry isn't going to be enough of a deterrent. Four games never has been.
Now let's be fair to the NHL here. The rulings by their Department of Player Safety are not the sole reason that suspensions are shorter than they might be. The players don't want to miss time, nor do their agents or their union want them out for an extended period. The teams don't want their players suspended, either. That means many of people who set the policies on how long players should be suspended don't want long bans.
In this specific instance, the call on the ice was interference and that Perry's hit on Zucker was late. This was not a Rule 48 violation for an illegal head check. Still, Blake recognizes in his explanation that Perry "made significant contact to Zucker's head." And whatever is keeping Zucker out of the lineup has much more to do with that head contact than with how long it took for Perry to hit him after Zucker passed the puck back to the point. If Perry had made shoulder-to-shoulder contact, you have to wonder if he even would have been penalized.
And that's the concern that anyone who is interested in a safer game has to have. While creating and improving Rule 48 on hits to the head over the last few seasons was groundbreaking -- perhaps the single biggest change the game has ever experienced when it comes to physical play -- there is still some hesitation to really crack the whip. For the first time, the onus has been placed on the checker to avoid contact with a puck carrier's head in certain situations. And the league has become more aware and more vigilant.
But more can and should be done, and longer suspensions are the place to start.