Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty was suspended three games for his hit on Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang during Saturday night’s match-up at the Bell Centre. Despite returning to score the overtime winner in a 4-3 Penguins victory, Letang was forced to sit out yesterday’s game versus the New York Rangers and is currently listed as day-to-day with a broken nose.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan delivered the news to Pacioretty via conference call on Monday. Although the suspension comes as little surprise, given the league’s recent crackdown on any hit involving contact to the head of an opposing player, Pacioretty says he was “confused” by the decision nonetheless and called for increased consistency from the NHL’s head office.
“Patches”, as he is known to fans and teammates alike, makes the point that Letang cut to the middle of the ice, looked up to see Pacioretty coming, and still chose to lower his head to take the shot. In Pacioretty’s eyes, he was left with little choice but to follow through and finish his check, even if he is regretful of its outcome.
Others crying foul on the suspension point to the hit laid by Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone on Chris Campoli in early October and wonder what, if anything, differentiates the two plays. In each case, the puck carrier was caught staring at his skate laces and received a full-blown shoulder to the face for his indiscretion.
Now, for the worst kept secret in hockey…there was no difference.
The fact is, Shanahan and the NHL have been in perpetual motion since bringing Rule 48 into effect during the off-season. What we are experiencing right now is simply the learning curve which accompanies the implementation of a rule change which has fundamental repercussions.
Does something need to be done to address the increased incidence of head trauma in hockey?
Is rule 48 the be-all, end-all solution in its current form?
Put simply, the rule is fraught with inconsistencies.
As it stands, Hal Gill would literally have to slide across the ice on his knees to have any chance of laying a clean hit on someone like Nathan Gerbe of the Buffalo Sabres. When an opponent’s face is at elbow height, it is nearly impossible to hit him without making contact to the head. Should Zdeno Chara simply knee Brian Gionta in the chest the next time he tries to skate by him?
Or maybe coaches should start teaching young players to cut through the middle of the ice with their heads down. After all, it would essentially render them unhittable.
As we’ve seen on so many occasions, certain changes are simply very difficult to implement on a wide scale. I’m reminded of the infamous 98-99 season, aka The Year of the Foot in the Crease, as the perfect example of how a rule adjustment which requires a player is to alter his instinctual decision making process (such as throwing an open-ice hit or chasing down a loose puck in the crease) can lead to mass confusion across the league.
Unfortunately for Pacioretty, the consistency he seeks may be a while coming. The simple fact of the matter is that the game of hockey is caught in a grey area right now. The health and safety of players must be protected, but we must also tread carefully or we run the risk of making irreparable changes to the speed and intensity of the game.
Given the complexity of the task at hand and the limited amount of time he’s been on the case, Shanahan and his crew have done an admirable job of trying to strike the proper balance. Obviously, he’s not there yet… but he’s done more to remedy the situation in the past three months than anyone else has in the past five years.
So before we start pointing fingers, we should all take a step back and realize that the league, its players, and its fans all want the same end result; fast-paced, hard-hitting hockey played in the safest manner possible without sacrificing the true nature of the game.
There will be hurdles and there will be inconsistencies, but the game is a constant work in progress. It is easy to look backwards and question the decisions that have been already made. But the tougher, and much more important question is:
Knowing what we’ve learned so far, where do we go from here?