With the recent hit by Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards on Florida Panthers forward David Booth, and the Carolina Hurricanes Tuomo Ruutu’s hit on Colorado’s Darcy Tucker, once again the NHL is discussing the severity of head shots. Both players suffered sever concussions, and both were carted off the ice. If the NHL really wants to clean this up, they need only to look to the NFL. At one time, the NFL’s viciousness and lawlessness was legendary and matched the current sad state of today’s NHL.
There was a time in the NFL, when it was legal to use your forearm when hitting an opposing player. Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots was paralyzed when he was hit by Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum with a forearm to Stingley’s helmet. Nicknamed “The Assassin” Tatum still to this day sees the hit as legal. You could also chop block anyone on the field. Chop blocks occur when a player is engaged with another, and a third comes in and cuts the players knees out from underneath them. These types of blocks resulted in numerous career ending knee injuries. You could also hit helmet to helmet, or spear someone in the back with your helmet. It wasn’t uncommon to hear about defensive coaches telling their players to take the opposing team’s quarterback out. This didn’t imply taking him to dinner, it meant knocking him out cold. For a time, you could horse collar a player by grabbing the back of their jersey as they were running away, and throw them to the ground. All of these were legal at one time. Helmet to helmet shots are now illegal, as are chop blocks, horse collar tackles, and using your for forearm. Nowadays, you hear defensive players stating that they want to get the opposing team’s quarterback off his game and make him feel uncomfortable. Clearly, football has come a long way from its brutal heydays. However, why can’t hockey make the same changes?
The NHL uses excuses not to act!
It has always been rather amusing to hear hockey fans defend fighting in hockey. Somehow, getting hit in hockey justifies you punching the person who hit you. Fans always reference the dirty hits and the needs of players to police themselves. However, nothing is more grueling than football. Simply put, it’s the most physical game, period. The average career of a football player is the shortest of any professional sport anywhere in the world. When the star running back runs up for a 5 yard gain and is hit hard by a linebacker, nobody from the opposing team comes flying in to punch the defensive player in the face for playing his position. Instead, you’ll see these two players congratulate one another. They’ll do the typical pat on each other’s helmet. There is a respect each has for the other. The problem in hockey is that the rules themselves aren’t harsh enough on players taking stupid penalties. The NFL proved that if the penalty is harsh enough, and the financial repercussions are severe enough, players will do everything to avoid making these mistakes. These hits still occur in the NFL. The difference is, in the NFL when a player makes a stupid play and costs their team valuable yards, everyone on that player’s team will hold that player responsible. The media will hold that player responsible. The remaining week up and until the next game, that player will be scrutinized for the play. They’ll be thinking about how that one penalty cost the team the game. When there are only 16 games in a season, every game is important. Blowing a game in the NFL because of a stupid penalty, is bound to anger that player’s teammates.
Entirely different in the NHL
How is this different in the NHL? Well, for starters, the goons of the sport are always revered for having good fights and a lot of penalty minutes. It’s actually one of the criteria fans use to judge a player’s worth. However, you never hear any fan of an NFL team say “Not only does he hit hard, but he averages 5 penalties a game. He’s just a great player!” The NHL likes to say that fighting is just a part of the game, and that if removed, they would lose a number of fans. The same argument was used in Australia with the Australian Rules Football league. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s it was a common occurrence to have fights in games. They decided to ban fighting, and fans everywhere claimed that it would cost them support. However, the exact opposite happened. Once fighting was banned, viewership and attendance increased. How could this be the case? Well, it became obvious that people actually enjoyed good close games, instead of just useless fights.
There is one time of the year where you rarely see fighting in hockey. During the playoffs, the games are simply too important to have someone give up a penalty because they started a fight. Only when the game is completely out of hand, will you see a fight. If the NHL really wanted to stop fighting and vicious head shots, they would follow the lead of the NFL and make the repercussions of these actions so severe that players would do everything they could to avoid them. If there were severe suspensions, such as an immediate game ejection and 10 game suspension, it could make a difference. Better yet, what if the player was penalized for 10 minutes, but could not come out of the penalty box until the entire 10 minutes was up? How would that player’s teammates respond to a penalty that forced them to kill a 10 minute power play? Perhaps they would respond the same way a player’s teammates do in the NFL when that penalty costs them the game. It’s simply a matter of the NHL making a choice. Unfortunately, that choice is far from being made.