Today, it was decided that Vinny Lecavalier would not be additionally disciplined for his slash of P.K. Subban in last night’s game at Bell Center. Lecavalier was given a slashing major and a game misconduct at the time, ensuring that the league would have to take a second look to see if any supplementary punishment was necessary. They determined it wasn’t, and Lecavalier will play tomorrow for the Lightning without a fine.
After the NHL has taken a lot of heat this season for their justice decisions, they have gotten one right. However, the entire incident reveals more complicated problems with the process, and it shows the areas of vulnerability for some of the proposed rules and the criteria the League uses to judge suspensions.
We’ll start with the rule changes. In the GM meetings last week, various versions of a complete ban on hits that make contact with the head were explored. They have been explored by fans for the last year and change. While in theory it sounds like a good solution, there is a problem, and it is a potentially major one.
Much like many players will now turn into the boards when they see an opponent coming so they draw a boarding penalty, this new rule would almost certainly cause players to play with their heads down. Unfortunately we have seen that many players care more about winning than their own health, so there is a decent chance that at least some will put their heads in vulnerable positions to daw penalties.
Though they would be conscious enough to protect themselves, it would be relatively easy to make sure the opponent made contact with your head. Risk it to get a guy like Alex Ovechkin or Henrik Zetterburg out of the game? Most players would do it every time.
This leads into the other problem with the whole sequence of the slash: diving. Call it “embellishing” if you will, but more often than not it’s diving. What drove Lecavalier to that slash was the 3 slashes Subban gave him that went uncalled. Subban then fell as if he had been shot when Lecavalier hit is thigh, the most protected part of the body in hockey besides the head. Diving makes the ref’s job harder, which leads right into the next problem: referee discretion.
The human element is crucial to sport. We use compassion and judgement to apply the rules of the game, which is why there aren’t mandatory suspension lengths. Each situation is different. As Ken Dryden said in his book, The Game, referees in hockey have to use their own discretion when to call penalties. If you watch a game closely, a penalty should be called about every 30 seconds. However, refs understand the flow of the game and try not to disrupt it by letting certain things go.
Where this becomes a problem is when players then take it upon themselves to police each other. The league has implied that they don’t want the players to take matter into their own hands, yet they allow things to pass in certain situations. Lecavalier was essentially policing Subban, letting him know the slashing wouldn’t go unnoticed by the players, even if the officials were immune to it.
These are all ways the league can help this problem they at least pretend to be concerned about, but the change has to begin and end with the players. It is their culture that is allowing for players to be injured, and they are the only ones who can change it. The League can give all the incentive it wants, but in the end, the decision to play the game safer rests with the players.
But it’s nice to know the league got something right.