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NHL gets it exactly right

Globe and Mail Update

The NHL gets criticized a lot these days, some of it justified, some of it not.

But here's a time when the league got it exactly right. Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior vice-president and director of hockey operations, threw the book at Philadelphia Flyers' prospect Steve Downie Friday.

Downie received a 20-game suspension — tied with Todd Bertuzzi and others for the fifth-longest in history — for a vicious, leaving-his-feet blow to the head of the Ottawa Senators' Dean McAmmond that left McAmmond with a concussion and may even put his career in jeopardy.

The matter of hits to the head has been one of the NHL's most divisive and contentious issues for years now, which is why nothing's been done about it until now.

Some general managers argued that a body check delivered within long-established NHL parameters — leading with the shoulder, feet firmly planted on the ice, a player simply "finishing" a check — constituted a legitimate "hockey hit" and thus shouldn't, under any circumstances, be subject to supplementary discipline.

Never mind the increasing number of players, wobbling woozily to the dressing room - or worse, carried off the ice on a stretcher — after such a hit. The old-school thinkers suggested, under those circumstances, the onus was on a player to protect himself better, to keep his head up, to sense the danger coming and elude the contact.

That might have even made sense a generation ago too, when the idea of an open-ice check didn't so often involve one player trying to put another in the hospital just to impress a coach, or make the highlight reel.

Nowadays, the game is just so fast that it is virtually impossible for any player to keep his head up in every situation, all the time. Eventually, he is going to turn his head to take a pass, or fish a loose puck out of his skates, or otherwise put himself in a vulnerable situation.

In that scenario, the league is sending an important message about respect — what while it's OK to finish a check, anything that goes beyond that and is adjudged to be a deliberate attempt to injure would be punished through supplementary discipline.

This represents a shift in the NHL crime-and-punishment process, which in the past, reviewed other similar cases and often let players off with a fine, or short inconsequential suspensions.

Campbell's message yesterday was that those days are over. First in a prepared statement and then later in a conference call with reporters, Campbell outlined the terms under which players are now subject to supplementary discipline, noting that the policy adopted this year came after the league surveyed all the stake holders in the game — owners, general manager, coaches and most importantly the players themselves, through the competition committee.

The four factors isolated by Campbell and his committee were: when a player targets an opponent's head; when a player launches himself by leaving his feet to hit a player in the head area; when the hit to the head is delivered to an unsuspecting opponent; and the timing or lateness of the hit.

As always, Campbell will continue to take repeat offender status into consideration. Downie's hit met every one of criteria outlined in a videotape circulated to the teams earlier in training camp, except that as an NHL rookie, Downie has no previous history with the NHL disciplinary system (and gets a pass for all his junior hockey shenanigans).

"Downie crossed the line in a whole-hearted way," said Campbell.

"As soon as you see the hit, you think, 'this is going to be a bad one.'"

Nor should this be seen as an attempt to take hitting out of the game. Instead, this is an attempt to take head-hunting out of the game. It's an important distinction — and good for the NHL for figuring it out.

Some will argue the league made Downie a scapegoat, an easy and convenient target, which ignores the fact that all the materials relating to the changing disciplinary standards for blows to the head were in the hands of the 30 teams by the start of training camp.

"That was the message," said Campbell, of the videotapes he circulated in early September. "This (suspension) isn't the message. I didn't think it would happen this soon, and I didn't think it could be this clear cut."

As for Downie and the Flyers, the timing as it relates to his status on the team is interesting. Two weeks ago, the thinking was that Downie, as a first-year pro, would probably start the season in the AHL, which is not obliged to honor the terms of the NHL suspension, but often does. Even so, Downie wouldn't begin serving the current suspension until he was on the Flyers' active playing roster. Now, as a result of injuries to Scott Upshall, R.J. Umberger and Joffrey Lupul, there was a decent chance that Downie might have made the Flyers out of training camp and started the season in the line-up.

Chances are, the Flyers to keep him on their NHL roster until the suspension ends, which will give the 20-year-old Downie plenty of time to ponder the error of his ways.

As for the NHL, which can often be a lumbering, ponderous institution when it comes to changing an old-fashioned mindset, they identified a problem and addressed it with speed and authority. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a good thing, a very good thing.

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