The NHL’s Suspension System Is Broken

The NHL’s discipline system has been an abject failure with respect to intentional hits or blows to the head and their consequent punishment.
I’ll be frank: Suspension lengths are far too short. Punishments are currently based on brutally flawed criteria that create a poisonous positive feedback loop in which precedent is king. All the while, head injuries due to recklessness and outright disrespect persist.
This is a problem.
I am tired of explaining to people that hockey is about skill and speed and not neanderthal brutality.
I am tired of the fact that announcements like this one need to be made so often.
I am tired of the NHL grossly misjudging how this needs to be handled.
I don’t want the best league of the best sport in the world to go any further along the slippery slope that the NFL nosedived down long ago.

The Destructive Role of Precedent

I think this point is best illustrated through video.

That resulted in a 5-game ban.
You’re telling me that Keith only needs to sit out for a week and a half for that? A flying elbow that was intentional to an almost comical degree puts the perpetrator out of commission for… 6% of the season?
That’s it? What does that teach Keith? How is that just punishment for such a pathetically blatant attempt to injure? The message sent by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety with a suspension like this is one of utter nonchalance. Worthless.
Bizarrely, the suspension helped Keith and the Blackhawks. Leading the NHL in minutes per game that season, a 5 game break towards the end of the year ended up serving the dual purpose of giving Keith much-needed rest while also allowing him to return before the playoffs to back into game shape.
The NHL’s explanation was, as usual, centered on precedent – or, to be more precise, discipline history. Had Keith been suspended before? No (although he probably should have been, but that’s Colin Campbell’s negligence).
Did he have a reputation as a dirty player? Not particularly.
Was it incredibly reckless and dirty? Yes.
The fabled suspension wheel turned, and it landed on 5 games.
I understand the need for relative lenience on first-time offenders. But when a hit is this predatory, that needs to be thrown out the window. Is making that distinction really too much to ask?

The James Neal Suspension

It’s been all the rage in discussion circles lately.

Neal – like Keith – was given 5 games. He’s been suspended twice before, so even the infallible law of precedent isn’t an excuse this time.

Pathetic. There is no room in the game for that.
So explain to me what a meager 5 games will accomplish. Barely one-twentieth of the season.
How does this successfully teach Neal to, y’know, not slam his knee into prone, defenseless players’ heads?
Once again, the NHL came up lame.

The Shawn Thornton (Pending) Suspension

We all know about what he did to Brooks Orpik.
Many people (not terribly incorrectly) drew parallels to this debacle:

No, what Thornton did is not as egregious as Bertuzzi’s idiocy, but that isn’t the point here.
The NHL needs to send a message. It badly needs to establish a new precedent, one that emphasizes protecting the majority over the minority. The majority, who play hockey the way it is supposed to be played, over the minority, who through their actions deem attacks like those in the above videos to be okay. Acceptable. Just part of the game.
We’ll find out on the 13th whether or not there’s any change on the horizon.

Final Thoughts

Specifically with Neal and Thornton – but also any other comparable scenario, past, present, or future – please stop arguing about which dirty play was worse. It is irrelevant, unimportant, and completely misses the point. There are numerous more fruitful things to discuss than which mindless bit of stupidity was worse than the other.

Hockey is a physical sport. That’s part of what makes it so great.
There is plenty of room for that physicality to endure as hits to the head are concurrently eradicated.
But until the NHL shelves its apathy, that is nothing but pure fantasy.

Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu