Thursday, June 9, 2011

Stanley Cup: Rome's suspension signals start of NHL concussion plans

Part six of our season-long series: An Australian on Ice Hockey

Aaron Rome's season has passed on. It lies on a gurney next to Nathan Horton's, the man whose Stanley Cup dreams now depend totally on how well he's able to recover from Rome's blindside hit. He was yesterday suspended for four matches by the NHL's temporary Arbiter of Justice, Mike Murphy, a decision greeted with disdain on both sides of the continent.

In encouraging signs for the NHL, they've got this one right. Just as they did so by turning a lemon into lemonade with the Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg, when faced with two very tricky situations (this Rome hit and that relocation) a commission notoriously unpopular in Canada has made excellent, reasoned decisions. This comes on the back of the NHL All-Star Game breaking with tradition and opting for a "captain's choice" format. Three times, the NHL has faced issues which could derail or overshadow their season. On each issue they've come out on top. It would have been easy just to keep on trucking with the Great Southern Experiment and just as easy to suspend Rome for one or two games.

By levying such a heavy tax on the offender the NHL has announced they will no longer stand for blindside hits that endanger players. The penny, it seems, has finally dropped. Hockey, like the NFL and even baseball needs to minimise the effects of violent contact to the head. With such writers like Malcolm Gladwell weighing in on the area of concussions in sport, popular opinion has begun to swing from "entertainment" to "safety". With hockey and football, where mandated violence is such a staple, reduction in head-hits are best achieved through via punishment doled out by the league's HQ.

As much as it will upset the traditionalists, hockey's rules need to change. In the wake of Crosby-gate and the Zdeno Chara/Max Pacioretty hit, the league has to reinforce to players that hits to the head will not be countenanced. After the Chara/Pacioretty affair, we discussed the need for players of all sports - but particularly hockey players - to realise the need for a duty of care: a player's first duty should be to win, but not at the expense of their (or their colleagues') safety.

Rome's suspension is the first sign the NHL believes the same and are acting to clean up hockey.
Any suggestion that the game would suffer were they to penalise players for head-high contact is rubbish. People watch hockey for the game itself, not the surrounding hullabaloo - it's easy to suggest only a very small percentage of viewers would turn off the NHL were the league to crack down on head-high contact. The same could be said for fighting although hockey fights are more WWE than the die-hard fan cares to admit.

Many leagues have cleaned up their act and gone on to produce a better product. The NBA suffered from a poor popular perception during the 1970s and early 1980s. Fighting and cocaine were destroying the league, but when commissioner David Stern began his reign, heavy fines and suspensions were levied on fighting and drug use, which became more and more uncommon. Pro basketball was no longer seen as a competition for thugs and junkies. It is currently enjoying the end of perhaps it's greatest season in recent memory.

The same occurred for the AFL who, after several incidents like Leigh Matthews being charged with assault in the mid-80s, created a much more family-friendly league by instituting retrospective penalties for incidents in-game officials may have missed. The Australian Football League probably leads the league in family appeal and it's all-inclusive nature.

The second step forward for the NHL was taken today (Wednesday) when the League's collection of General Managers voted to take an amended "Rule 48" to the Players' Association - essentially penalising any contact to the head with in-game penalties or even suspensions. This is a great step by a league who's surprisingly made good decision after good decision starting with the All-Star game - but the ultimate responsibility for player safety depends not just on the league's head honchos, but also on the individual players themselves.

Read more "An Australian on Ice Hockey":
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