Halfway through the opening round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, I’m struck by what appears an unusually high number of incidents involving dirty play.
Every postseason features its share of cheap shots, usually blamed on the heightened intensity and competition at this time of year. These incidents tend to involve so-called “grit” players whose mission is life appears to be attempting to cripple a rival club’s better players. Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cooke’s recent kneeing of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie is a prime example. In Cooke’s case, his brainless actions undid 18 months of clean play following a lengthy suspension in 2011.
It’s not always the goons or the grit guys who garner reputations for questionable tactics. Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin, Pittsburgh Penguins sniper James Neal, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith and Anaheim Ducks winger Corey Perry are among the NHL’s best players. They also have suspension histories. All-but-retired Chris Pronger is a future Hall-of-Famer who was also among the dirtiest players in the game. Go back further in NHL history, and the names of Hall-of-Famers Eddie Shore, Gordie Howe,Ted Lindsay, Bobby Clarke and Mark Messier are among those renowned nearly as much for their dirty tactics as for their stellar hockey skills.
This year there seems to be more incidents of unsportsmanlike play than usual from skilled stars. For example:
Boston’s Milan Lucic spearing Detroit’s Danny DeKesyer in the nuts. No penalty, but he received supplemental discipline of a $5000.00 fine. After being fined Lucic claimed his actions were out of character, conveniently forgetting he pulled a similar stunt earlier this season on Montreal’s Alexei Emelin.
Los Angeles’ Mike Richards spears San Jose’s Logan Couture. Received a double-minor.
Anaheim’s Corey Perry spears Dallas Jamie Benn in the groin. Received a two-minute “slashing” penalty.
Chicago’s Brent Seabrook hammers St. Louis captain David Backes with a high hit. Seabrook receives a three-game suspension, while Backes suffers a concussion and has yet to return to action.
Factor in Cooke’s kneeing Barrie, and in less than a week there’s been five significant incidents of dirty play before the first round was even half-over.
In recent years there’s been lots of complaining about NHL discipline, how the league doesn’t do enough to crack down on dirty players in particular and dirty play in general. While the league could do more to enforce the rules, and has made many attempts over the past twenty years or so, ultimately these crackdowns don’t amount to much. Inevitably there are complaints from players, coaches, general managers, fans and some pundits and bloggers over how the officials slow the game down and rob it of its energy. Slowly but surely the old habits creep back.
The rules that have stuck – the clampdown on blindside hits, particularly to the head – haven’t significantly reduced the instances of head injuries from those cheap shots. Meanwhile, players seem to be getting more liberal in the usage of their sticks, as we saw with Lucic, Richards and Perry.
Defenders of “old time hockey” complain the increase in such stick work is due to the implementation of the instigator rule over 20 years ago, that in cracking down on fighting, the players are turning to dirtier tactics to settle their differences. Except that’s not true, as this article clearly demonstrates. Fighting didn’t happen as often in the Original Six era as it does today, and while it is way down from the brawling heyday of the late-1970s through the late-1980s, instances of fighting in today’s NHL is actually higher than it was in the early 1970s, though the numbers have fluctuated since the turn of this century.
Given the growing concerns over the impact of concussion injuries upon NHL players in the short and long term, there’s been increasing calls for the league to do more about dirty play. The problem, however, is the players appear unwilling to do anything about it.
NHL critics tend to overlook the fact the league cannot act arbitrarily with rule changes. It also needs the approval of the NHL Players Association. And while the NHLPA talks about cleaning up the game, especially the need for more respect between opponents, they’ve done little to be proactive about it.
Ultimately it’s up to the players to decide what kind of game they want. The league has continuously attempted to ease in rules to improve player safety. There’s now a department of player safety to address dirty play, including the use of supplemental discipline. Sadly, there’s little evidence to suggest it’s having any significant impact on reducing reckless play.
That’s not to suggest that the league should just give up trying. It should continue working with the PA to do all it can to improve the quality of the product. But it takes two to tango, and so far the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. Too often the PA appears more interested in protecting the negotiating rights of its membership than ensuring their on-ice safety. The players talk about the need for more respect among each other and doing more to clean up the game, but there’s been little real willingness on their part to do anything about it.
Until the players’ attitudes start changing, don’t expect to see much change in the instance of cheap shots and dirty play.