January 19, 2010
It happens during every flashpoint moment of violence in hockey: Shock at the actions, concern for the injured, anger -- and some character witness sympathy from peers -- aimed at the aggressor, anticipation of a banishment and then either celebration or repudiation of a governing body's determined punishment for the crime. Rinse and repeat.
The last few stages of that process also bring to a boil the debates forever tied to incidents like Rouyn-Noranda centre Patrice Cormier's(notes) headhunting of Mikael Tam of the Quebec Remparts, which sent Tam into convulsions in a horrific scene and sent Cormier off the ice indefinitely. (Word is that Cormier's ultimate punishment could be delayed until after the CHL/NHL prospects game on Wednesday, unless the fervor surrounding the hit demands more immediacy.)
The calls for a damning suspension. The concerns about a violent hockey culture that's out of control. The debates about what actually determines the severity of punishment. The questions about the legal ramifications of such a hit. It's all back on the front pages, the top of the blogs and in the minds of the hockey world in North America. And as prominent voices call for Cromier to be suspended for the season, perhaps beyond one, we all come back to a humbling question about this and other incidents:
Will sending a message here do anything to stop this from occurring again?
The hit once again, for those that haven't seen it. (WARNING: The footage may be disturbing to some viewers for the graphic nature of the injury. Please know that before watching the clip.)
It says here they should be severe. Not just for the illegal hits they delivered, but to send a message to the rest of the head hunters out there looking for the next opponent in a vulnerable position. Or a smaller, younger one.
Hockey is a dangerous enough game without players throwing elbows, forearms, fists or even shoulders at the heads of other players. That's not part of the game, and it never was. The players have to know that if they throw these hits, they'll be gone. Not just for five or 10 games, but for 20 or 25 games, maybe the rest of the season and playoffs. It's time for real deterrence to head hunting in hockey.
"That's not part of the game, and it never was."
Well, that's nonsense, unless we're talking about like how fighting "isn't part of the game" in the legal sense. There are always going to be screw-loose players like Cormier leaping into opponents like Tito Santana, because there always were.
This isn't to say that there isn't a change in the culture to the point where players have less respect for each other, because that's indisputable (and, frankly, one of Don Cherry's most consistent and cogent points). It's to say that television and YouTube and proliferation of international media have made us take more notice of a Cormier hit than, say, in the 1970s, when hockey wasn't exactly roses and puppy dog tails.
What does it say when the Globe & Mail opens its story on the hit with a scene from the highlight reel?
In that story, Ramparts Coach Patrick Roy calls for Cormier to be banned from the QMJHL for life, which is unlikely because of the severity of the punishment and because Roy asking for it is like Bernie Madoff asking for reduced sentences for Ponzi schemers.
To those who would agree with Roy, we'd politely ask: Are you suspending the hit or the aftermath? Are you suspending Cormier's seemingly premeditated open-ice elbow or the disturbing convulsions on the ice Tam suffered?
It's another debate that forever clouds this issue: The aesthetics of the aftermath vs. the incident that led to them. Take two identical hits; one doesn't cause a victim to miss a shift, the other results in a stretcher on the ice. Guess which one will earn a suspension?
Injury will always be a determining factor in the length of a suspension, and there are several reasons for it. The first is that if there's no injury -- the victim doesn't even miss a shift -- then there tends to be complete disinterest on the part of the opposing team and fans for punishment. Think about it: for every hit from behind that results in concussion or worse, there's about ten or so that don't result in any injury. Those ones that don't result in injury rarely create an outcry the next day.
A second reason can be found by looking to similar external sources. Seeing as the suspension policy is based on the same foundation as criminal law -- deterrence, punishment, etc. -- what happens for attempts in the criminal law? An attempted murder, which requires all of the forethought and intention of actual murder (but merely features an unsuccessful perpetrator), does not result in nearly the penalty as murder, and that does not seem to really bother the community at large. And while a hockey injury is a far cry from murder, there is an undeniable connection in these scenarios between what common sense says should happen and what the community at large needs to be satisfied.
Satisfaction for many would come with a suspension for the rest of the season ... though not for New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who didn't see any reason to suspend Cormier for the season or for there to be any legal action for his draft pick's hit.
Is Lamoriello part of the problem? In a column that covers Cormier, Michael Liambas, Zack Kassian and the courage of Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch to battle hits to the head, John MacKinnon of the Edmonton Journal takes aim at the NHL's affect on younger players:
Perhaps one key reason is that players like Cormier, Kassian and Liambas also listen to the "rhetoric" of their future employers, men like Lamoriello and others in the NHL with their talk about the importance of finishing the check, of the onus on players to protect themselves, to keep their heads up, on and on.
You would hope both Cormier and Kassian will be hit with stiff suspensions. But what the hockey culture really needs is a major shift in attitudes about head shots and the short-and long-term injuries they can cause. For that to happen, leaders in the sport would, like Branch, have to use their heads on this issue.
What's the proper response from the OHL or from the hockey world? For comparison's sake, look at how rugby handles its controversies. In an eye-opening bit of news, The Soft European reports on a player who could have been suspended 156 weeks for an eye gouge:
Again, I don't follow rugby closely enough to know if the decisions are consistent with these documents, and if the procedures are effective and considered fair by all parties. But wow. The level of transparency, and the severity of the sanctions are striking for a hockey fan. Maybe rugby could be an example of a sport where physical play is considered as an intrinsic part of the game too, and yet sanctions are very harsh if you break the rules. And maybe hockey has a lot to learn there.
So the argument returns to one of a hockey culture with declining standards of safety and decency, which means it returns to one basic question: Would banning Cormier for a season, for two seasons, for life ... would it do anything to change the culture? Are these punishments at all a deterrent?
If not, then is the intrusion of law enforcement into the relatively lawless confines of a hockey rink the only viable way to send that magnitude of message to players? Even if previous court cases regarding hockey violence, from British Columbia to Swiss Federal court, clearly didn't deter Patrice Cormier for a millisecond from taking out Mikael Tam?
We hope it hasn't come to that. We regret that it may have.