Where are the NHL Suspension Standards?

1208 for publication February 17,2017

Ross Brewitt

Like everyone else who might be interested, I waited, to see if the National Hockey League would take an easy opportunity to make a case for getting tough. They didn’t.

I’m speaking of the incident last Sunday night where Red Wing Gustav Nyqvist high-sticked the Wild’s Jared Spurgeon in the face, in a careless action along the boards. It could have been disastrous, and the fact it wasn’t didn’t lessen the immediate fear it generated.

In the history of hockey there has always been an understanding that having your stick under control is the individual’s responsibility. According to the NHL it was so in the Brian Berard eye-injury case, as it was for Duncan Keith’s high-sticking foul last season, to name a couple of frightening cases. Regardless of good intentions or excuses, it’s the stick-wielder’s problem.

For as long as I’ve been around hockey, there has been plenty of tough talk, plenty of reclamation projects, so allow me to explain, where I saw this “opportunity.”

The League could have demonstrated caution by beginning 10 games, possibly dropping it to 9 for Nyquist, showing consideration for his unblemished clean sheet. But in order to adjudicate future incidents, and to show a tougher stand or deterrent, and it would set a higher baseline for future incidents that will follow. Instead, the NHL is left with a low example for a serious foul.

And, regardless that Spurgeon was able to resume playing that night, the fact he wasn’t injured shouldn’t factor into the initial evaluation.

Let me harken back to the “old days,” which remain surprisingly close to today’s NHL hand-to-hand combat. In those bad old days the stories you heard weren’t exaggerations, just as wild-and-wooly as described. In fact with the lack of the personal protection being up to today’s standards, and medical support services being lesser than they are now, they were more dangerous in the extreme for the victims.

Back in the mid-50’s Red Sullivan, the Rangers captain, was speared by Habs defenceman Dough Harvey, and rushed to a Montreal hospital with internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen. The stories of the day reported it was close to a fatality. In fact a priest was summoned to his bedside for the last rites.

Red Sullivan is someone I got to know when he scouted for the Rangers and I later interviewed him at his home in Peterborough considering his closeness with Edward Shack, when I was writing “Clear the Track,” the Schack biography.

A combative player, Sullivan related to me how he and Harvey had an on-going career feud. On this occasion Sullivan admitted guilt in slew-footing Harvey the game before and he fully expected retribution in their next game. He did. When Sullivan jostled the Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante that night, Harvey speared him.

No mention was made in the clippings of the penalty time issued, or if there was a suspension. Even today I could find nothing in the League’s or media accounts of this near fatality.

Anyway, it was this extreme stickwork that fell out of favour, cropping up only briefly and sporadically, depending on the individual practitioners who came and went, quickly, in the years that followed.

Yet another foul that seemed to disappear then re-appeared in the headlines of recent seasons, is that same slew-footing, and spearing. Most likely, it’s because of the escape performances of Boston’s Brad Marchand, who practices both fouls.

In Marchand’s most recent incident, he got away with a $10,000 fine rather than the slew-footing suspension most experts predicted. Based on his past history, worse was expected. He was allowed to continue playing in that game, appearing several times in the scoring summary, and avoided missing the All Star Game he had been selected to.

For me, it’s these trembling, fluttery League standards that come into question, this floating baseline that’s available, but little used. Instead, the minimum discipline is usually applied, seemingly based on “considerations”

A $10,000 fine to a player in today’s game isn’t a handicap.  But losing six to ten games is, and therein lies the key to curtailing repeat offenders.

Take away their ice time. It really hurts. In all the right places, for all the right reasons.

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