Saturday, September 29, 2007

NHL Finally in Tune with Illegal Hits; Doesn't Go Soft on Downie

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

While all of Canada railed endlessly for the better part of 48 hours at the spectacularly vicious hit Flyers forward Steve Downie unleashed on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond Tuesday night, my attention turned to the stance the NHL would take as its resolve was tested once again.

As the Eastern portion of the Dominion vilified Downie like a cross between a puppy killer and Josef Mengele, rational thought focused on the impending punishment he’d receive in short order.

Once again, league disciplinarian Colin Campbell didn’t disappoint. He levied a 20-game suspension on Downie for his actions on Friday. It is the second such severe penalty Campbell has handed down, after giving Islanders enforcer Chris Simon a 20-game ban for a blatant elbow on the Rangers’ Ryan Hollweg last March.

As for the hit itself, it was an eye-catcher. Had Downie not leapt forward or he not presented his elbow and forearm cocked and ready, it was a collision tailor-made for watching and re-watching and for debate on the greatest hits in Flyers history.

However, the fact remains that Downie came into the league from juniors with a reputation for recklessness, stupidity and a mean streak bordering on bigotry. McAmmond was already a tragic figure across Canada for absorbing the equally-purposeless elbow Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger threw at his head in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals back in June.

Then, the club raised holy hell that Pronger was suspended for one whole game; now I expect their anger will be sated because the league already set a precedent with the Simon incident followed by a videotape over the Summer outlining exactly what would produce a sentence of this length.

There are three messages sent by this latest ruling. One is that the NHL is finally serious about clarity in their explanations of why certain actions merit such penalties. Two, is that the NHL will act quickly and decisively based on the rules to hand out lengthy punishments.

The other is that it is imperative for players allow a lot more thought in the heat of battle.

Not only will Downie’s services be lost for 20 games whenever he’s listed on the Flyers’ roster, but his presence there also serves as a salary cap hit to the club. Therefore, Downie will cause Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to get more creative than he’d like with personnel movements because of the penalty.

It is a huge step in the right direction. All the league needs now is to find a way to anchor the nets like they were up until the mid-1980’s, and maybe these Mack trucks on thin blades won’t go hurtling themselves wantonly across the ice at high speed.

Unlike the continual restrictions on fighting, which is a misdirected crusade undertaken by lawyers intent on whitewashing the sport, the heavy penalties on head hits are finally right on the mark. Concussions and broken bones as a result of hits where the victim cannot defend or brace himself are a greater harm to the game than bloody knuckles and mangled faces.

I’m hoping all would-be rabble-rousers looking to cement a reputation take heed. I’m hoping Steve Downie can harness his unbridled passion into a workable NHL-style game. I’m certainly hoping Dean McAmmond remains the same gritty player he’s been through his 14-year career when he recovers.

I’m also hoping Campbell and the rest of the NHL keep up the good work. No matter how much money a player makes or loses, at the deepest level it hurts his spirit and pride most when he is forced away from the ice and when his actions negatively affect his team.
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