NHL dealing with issue of cheap shots

Marc Staal has yet to play this season after he being diagnosed with a concussion after a hit last February.

Erik Christensen’s face was a mask of anger and disgust.

It was a few minutes after 9:30 p.m. on the night of Sept. 26, and the Rangers’ center was sitting at a stall inside the visitors’ dressing room in the bowels of Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center. The Rangers had lost an exhibition game to the Flyers, 5-3.

The loss was not what was on Christensen’s mind. Rather, two checks on Rangers prospect Andre Deveaux bothered Christensen.  

“Stuff that was going on tonight … what can you say?” Christensen asked rhetorically.

Tom Sestito was ejected for checking Deveaux face first into the end boards during the first period. Max Talbot drove Deveaux into the boards in the second period.  

“It’s tough to watch,” Christensen said.

Hits on defenseless players — and the concussion that often follow — have become the hot-button topic in the NHL. Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Clarke MacArthur recently told the Canadian Press that he believes the NHL will become a “no hitting” league.

MacArthur and Sestito are two of the nine players who received supplemental discipline from the NHL during the preseason. NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan suspended the athletes for 27 exhibition games and 31 regular season games. As part of the suspensions, the players were fined $701,682.56. The fine money is earmarked for the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

While Christensen favors the punishments, he is concerned that his fellow players do not seem to have heeded Shanahan’s rulings.

“It’s troubling. The message [doesn’t seem to be] getting across. How serious does it have to be for guys to go, ‘Whoa?’” Christensen said. “I don’t want [an incident] to be so serious that a guy can’t play anymore. We don’t want that. What is it going to take?”

Those that favor strong enforcement of the rules point to the number of high quality players that have been sidelined due to injuries — specifically concussions — suffered from the hits.

A short list of players that have missed time includes Boston centers Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and David Booth of the Florida Panthers.

Booth suffered two concussions in the span of 152 days during the 2009-10 season. The first occurred on Oct. 24, 2010, in a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia. Booth had just completed a pass when he was slammed into by then-Flyers center Mike Richards. Booth returned to the Panthers after missing 45 games. His season ended following a check from Montreal’s Jaroslav Spacek at the Bell Centre on March 25. He had played in only 28 games that year.

Peter DeBoer was the head coach of the Panthers at the time. He is now the head coach of the Devils. He recalled the Booth hits after a Devils’ 1-0 preseason win over the Islanders at The Prudential Center, in which Islanders rookie center Ryan Strome boarded Devils right wing Stephen Gionta late in the third period.

“I was behind the bench in Florida when David Booth got hit,” DeBoer said. “It was a scary moment that transcends the game. You’re dealing with someone’s life.    

“I think anything they can put in to protect players, I’m willing to live with,” DeBoer said. “We should be open-minded about it and be prepared to accept some of the good and the bad that go with it.”   

The job of protecting players is Shanahan’s. He was formally introduced as the NHL’s new Czar of Discipline on June 1, replacing Colin Campbell. Campbell, in a conference call with Shanahan and reporters, said he thought the job needed “a fresh look and fresh eyes.”

Shanahan worked with fellow recent NHL retirees Rob Blake, Joe Nieuwendyk and Steve Yzerman to modify Rule 48, which penalizes targeted “contact with an opponent’s head.”  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Shanahan made the announcement at the NHL Board of Governors meeting in June.

Prior to the start of training camps, Shanahan sent DVDs to the league’s 30 teams that detailed legal and illegal hits. Christensen told Metro that the DVDs were explicit in their clarity as to what was a punishable hit.  

However there is already concern as to what is and is not a suspendable hit. Strome was ejected for his hit on Gionta, but was neither fined nor suspended. Talbot was assessed a two-minute minor for boarding Deveaux, but he did not face additional punishment. Shanahan announced on NHL.com that Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ryan Malone would not be punished for a hit on Montreal Canadiens defenseman Chris Campoli this preseason. The force of the hit spun Campoli 360 degrees as he fell to the ice. Shanahan termed the decision the “most difficult to date” and “the most challenging one so far in the preseason.”

“I haven’t seen the replay. The guy kind of turned as I was going by. I don’t know how bad it was. I definitely didn’t mean to hit him too hard. I’m not a dirty player but things happen. If he is hurt, I feel bad, but things happen quick and it wasn’t intentional by any means,” Strome said of his hit on Gionta.  

“I assume so, the way things are going. But you never know,” Strome said when asked by Metro if he anticipated hearing from Shanahan. “That’s the way it is. They [have] to lay down the law and try to make a point to people. It’s just the way things are going. It’s the way it is.”

Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman for news on all three local teams as well as news from the league as a whole.


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