Willie Mitchell is 39 years old. He’s symptom-free from his latest concussion; but having suffered so many in his career, doctors are concerned about his long-term health. The Florida Panthers have made his return to the ice ultimately Mitchell’s call, and he’s not sure what call he’ll make.
What dealing with concussions has given Mitchell is context. When he sees a reckless hit, or the kind of stick-swing that Duncan Keith made to Charlie Coyle’s face recently, he cringes – not only because of the heinous nature of the act, but because he doesn’t believe it’ll be sufficiently punished.
“The league needs to do a better job,” Mitchell said in an interview with Sportsnet.
“Guys need protection. There’s a concern with players. Guys are worried about it. Guys talk about it – the league isn’t doing enough to protect the players,” Mitchell said. “A couple of years back, a 20-game suspension was a message. You’d be missing games, you get a big chunk of money taken from your pocket – a quarter of your (annual) salary gone. Those suspensions had gotten the game safer – still physical, still fast. Shanny (Brendan Shanahan, then the league’s chief disciplinarian) did a great job. But it’s not like that now.”
Ouch. That’s a shot square at Stephane Quintal and the new regime. (Although how many 20-gamers did the Shanahan DoPS actually produce?)
As Arash Madani notes, the NHL has handed out 27 suspensions for player-on-player hits this season, and 26 of them were for five or fewer games. Which is, of course, partially due to the NHLPA-negotiated appeals option that’s triggered by a six-game suspension. (The Department of Player Safety has long-denied this option’s influence, but the numbers are what they are.)
“Players are worried and guys talk about it here in the dressing room, but don’t say much (publicly) because they think they’re going to get fined,” Mitchell said. “But I can tell you: players are worried about it.
“I’d like to think I’m a rational guy. I’m not an F-U guy. I’m not criticizing the league as a whole,” he said. “If my game slips, a coach will come tell me, it’s slipping. Well, on trying to protect us, the league is slipping.”
As we said over the weekend: Within the context of previous Player Safety rulings, the NHL got it right with Duncan Keith’s six games. If your complaint, as is Mitchell’s, is that the NHL should have a higher bar for all suspensions, well, that’s a different and more imperative conversion.
Have the NHL’s Player Safety standards slipped? We’re not sure.
As Mitchell said, it’s a safer game. There are fewer instances of, say, intentional shots to the head than there were several years ago. And the number of suspensions hasn't dramatically dropped. Overall, the DoPS continues to do a good job focusing on the player at hand rather than the public outcry over a play.
But if the players are saying that the DoPS doesn’t have the teeth that it used to, that’s something the NHL needs to hear about in the offseason.
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