So far this season, fans have witnessed some extremely hard-hitting hockey resulting in serious injuries, concussions, and inconsistent rulings and suspensions by NHL officials. As a result of these controversial hits, the NHL in all likelihood will add a rule before the season ends.
The first of these hits occurred in October. Philadelphia Flyers center Mike Richards knocked out Florida Panthers forward David Booth. Richards' shoulder collided with Booth’s head, resulting in Booth spending a night in the hospital. Booth suffered a concussion and received a cut over his eye, causing him to miss 45 days. NHL officials deemed Richards did not leave his feet before the hit, nor did he violate an existing rule, therefore they did not suspend him.
Meanwhile, Alexander Ovechkin has been involved in a number of incidents this season. In December, Ovechkin received a two-game suspension for a knee-to-knee hit with Carolina Hurricane defenseman Tim Gleason. Both players were hurt in the collision. Ovechkin had a similar hit last year during the Stanley Cup playoffs in which he injured Sergei Gonchar of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Ovechkin did not receive a suspension for that.
Ovechkin’s latest suspension resulted from incident in which he hit the Chicago Blackhawks' Brian Campbell — who had just passed the puck — from behind at full speed, sending Campbell into the boards. Campbell fractured his collarbone and ribs, potentially putting him out for the season. Back in November, Ovechkin received a boarding major and a game misconduct for boarding Buffalo Sabre right winger Patrick Kaleta. In this incident, a suspension was not issued because Kaleta still had control of the puck.
On March 7, Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke injured Boston Bruin Marc Savard with a shoulder to the head. Savard was carried off the ice on a stretcher. While he suffered a concussion, he did not go to the hospital but did not return to play. Cooke did not receive a suspension.
On March 17, Anaheim Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski injured Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. Colin Campbell, NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, and the person ultimately responsible for doling out suspensions and fines suspended Wisniewski for eight games. Campbell deemed Wisniewski left his feet when he hit Seabrook, who had already passed the puck. Campbell also stated that Wisniewski’s hit was retaliatory, and he was a repeat offender. Seabrook suffered from a concussion, but he practiced with the team two days later.
In early March hockey general managers met in Boca Raton, Florida. One of the things to come out of the meeting was a recommendation to institute a ban on blindside head shots next year. The initial impetus for the rule change was the Richards hit on Booth, but two days before the meeting was the Cooke's hit on Savard, which increased the pressure on the GMs.
Campbell would like to see a version of the rule change instituted as quickly as possible, such as before the playoffs. An on-ice penalty rule could not be implemented that quickly, but they could star suspending for hits like the ones doled out by Richards and Cooke.
The rule would ban blindside headshots, but not those from front-on. Therefore, it wouldn't affect the kinds of hits put forth by Ovechkin this season that resulted in penalties and suspensions. Many may argue, "but his hits were covered by existing rules, and the NHL took action accordingly." An argument could be made that his second suspension should have been longer. However, Ovechkin now has two suspensions this season, and if any future infractions occur, Ovechkin could be given a lengthy vacation.
Hockey prides itself on rough play. Hockey players are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. The players have more momentum when they collide with each other and the boards. Injuries will continue to happen, but that is the nature of the game. However, the NHL must change the rules and enforce the existing rules to prevent cheap shots and hits away from the puck.
The ban on blindside headshots will help, but only if they enforce the rule uniformly. They must also put some teeth in the rule with defined suspensions that will hurt the offending players and their team.