The NHL Has a Suspension Problem

by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine

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Damned if you do… and you know the rest.

I sort of applauded the NHL and Stephane Quintal last week, when they suspended Alex Burrows three games for his high and late hit on Montreal’s Alexei Emelin. I’m a Canucks fan, so I didn’t want to see Burrows suspended. And I don’t think, for second, he was trying to do anything sinister on the play – he was trying to finish his check on Emelin, take the defender out of the play, and an unfortunate, cosmic motion of each man’s body (Burrows aiming above a head that lowered and moved right, Emelin apparently not aware of who was there) put Alex’s hands in Alexei’s eyes, which left the blueliner clipped and stunned, lying on the ice recovering while the Canucks took the puck and scored on Carey Price.

Burrows’ only intentional error on the play was that he was late. He could have avoided Emelin. The hit to the head was marginal and passing, but when you make a silly mistake you have to bear responsibility for what happens next, in relation to your first mistake.

But in Vancouver’s next game – against the Oilers – Edmonton defenceman Andrew Ference left his feet (albeit marginally, again) and cranked Zack Kassian in the face with his shoulder. It was like the Burrows hit, in the sense that Ference’s limb contacted Kassian’s head. And it was a defender hitting a forward.

And I was satisfied when I learned Ference would be getting three games. I’m sure Canucks fans everywhere were happy with that.

But really, was that the right thing to do? Was Ference really thinking about Burrows’ hit two nights before when he hit Kassian? I doubt it. No, I mean, I really, really doubt it.

Why should Ference be taking responsibility for what happened between Burrows and Emelin, after all?

And the hits were different. Both involved the head, but it’s hard to argue – or even believe – that either Ference or Burrows intended to actually do harm on their plays. While Burrows was late, Ference rose and left his feet.

The plays looked similar, but they had nothing to do with each other.

But still, they’re laid against one another. And this is a problem today like it was a problem yesterday – when Brendan Shanahan was the league’s top cop, not Quintal – and it’ll be a problem tomorrow.

Because really, it’s not a big deal that either Burrows or Ference got three games way back in October and November, when the wins and losses don’t really matter yet. I mean, sure, if the Canucks or Oilers were to miss the playoffs by a point or two, you could point back to now, and argue that having two quality players like Ference or Burrows for three extra games would have earned the Canucks or Oilers a crucial point or two more. But nobody’s going to take that complaint seriously, because the season only really starts after 41 games. And if you want to win the Stanley Cup, it only really starts after 82 games.

So, whatever… give them three games. Do your job, NHL. And move on, right?

Except, it does matter. Because Burrows and Ference are now both repeat offenders. Which means if anything like this happens again – and let’s be clear, neither of the hits they were suspended for were vicious or maniacal, and I think the NHL’s rule crew knows that – then both guys will be held accountable for their minor little three-game bans.

Alex Edler’s been dealing with this crap for a few seasons now. He likes to hit guys hard, guys who have their heads down. So naturally, when he hits them, they get whacked in the head. But every hit is clean. There’s no feet up, no elbow rising, and he’s never late or charging.

Nevermind though, because he’s been suspended twice now – and both times, he was found guilty of crimes hardly committed. The first time, it was for making contact with Arizona goalie Mike Smith. The second time, it was last October, when he welcomed Sharks’ rookie Tomas Hertl to the NHL. Each are grey; neither was black or white.

Both times, you could say the suspension was a diplomatic move… you know, just sit down for a couple nights, and we’ll forget it ever happened. And it’ll be easier to explain that to Arizona or San Jose or whichever drive-by fan is offended. The game has been given a black eye, it’s been spending its energy saving face, not protecting heads.

But nobody forgets what’s happened. As soon as the decision comes down, a precedent is set. The second time Edler was suspended, his first one was referenced – even though they were for enitrely different infractions. Somehow, Burrows and Ference both served more time than Duncan Keith did for this or this, or than Shea Weber did for THIS:

Now, it’s perhaps not fair to keep bringing Keith and Weber up in posts like this. That stuff happened a while ago, and they were either suspended or they weren’t.

But then again, it’s on record. The clips are on YouTube. We’ve all seen the evidence, and we can watch it whenever we want. So it’s fair as long as it’s there, right?

And like I said, whenever any player does something wrong, they bear the brunt for their hit and everything that happened after it. Whether the guy fell wrong, whether the elbow hit the head, whether their feet left the ground. It’s like when Don Corleone wanted Michael back in America, and he told his fellow bosses that he’d blame them for anything that happened to his son during or after his return to New York – “Or if he is struck by a bolt of lightning!”

Basically, if you fu*k up, it’s your responsibility.

Maybe the NHL deserves to balance on the same beam.

And from now, it seems anything involving a head – dirty or intentional or not – has a going rate of three games, fair or not.