Now that’s using your head

I don’t know whether it’s good that most of the buzz heading into the new NHL season is that the league is actually punishing players when they attempt to decapitate each other.

I’m glad the league is enforcing its rulebook, but it feels like applauding your neighbourhood restaurant because they’ve finally dealt with the rat hair.

Yes, the league — after decades of downplaying violence as “part of the game” — is now cracking down if players are reckless with an opponent’s braincase.

Such is the NHL that this is considered a breakthrough.

In case you don’t eat/breathe/sweat/secrete/expectorate hockey like me, here’s the deal. For years, NHL discipline worked like this:

• One player attacks another, possibly with a chainsaw (this is a fanciful example and only happened a couple of times).

• The league notes that there is no mention of a chainsaw in the rulebook, so its hands are tied.

• The players say hockey is a fast game and the attacker probably just meant to use the chainsaw as a bludgeon.

• During the next game, the chainsaw wielder and an “enforcer” on the other team have a fistfight. This makes everything OK.

This system worked for a while, but what do you think the league did when great players such as Pat LaFontaine and Eric Lindros had their careers cut short?

If you said, “Nothing!” then you have a bright future as a National Hockey League commissioner.

No, what it took for the league to take action was for Sidney Crosby — both a Penguin and a cash cow — to be knocked out for most of last season. It’s hard to be the face of the NHL when your cranium is caved in.

So the league hired a new disciplinarian (former player Brendan Shanahan) to replace the old one (a macaque with a Magic 8-Ball). Shanahan swiftly handed out a huge eight-game suspension — your salary for a year, basically — because of a simple hit from behind. It used to be that an eight-game suspension probably involved an autopsy, at minimum.

The league’s website even has a slick “Suspensions” section, tucked in between the highlights and the pro shop. This is either heartening or depressing.

The league — which was slow to enforce hooking and holding penalties, to shrink goaltender’s equipment, to ban head shots — usually makes the right decision eventually — but almost always one moment too late.

A little anticipation would be nice. Or as Gretzky might put it, the league needs to learn to go where the screw-ups are going to be, not where they’ve been.



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