Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: Safety First

The WHL playoffs got underway this weekend, and less than a week later the Portland Winterhawks are one game away from eliminating the Kelowna Rockets in a 4-game sweep. The Rockets are a is fighting to stay in the series and they will receive reinforcement tonight with the return of Brett Bulmer, who has already served a one-game suspension in Tuesday’s game. Which is deceptive when you realize that he racked up 23 minutes of penalties in Game 2, including three kneeing penalties, the final of which resulted in a game misconduct and the suspension. Did the punishment fit the crime? Of course not. It’s hockey, after all. No one said it was fair. But the bigger issue is player safety; at what point is it clear a player is beyond caring about who he hits or hurts? This is the junior leagues, but the same topic has been just as hot in the NHL. Which got to me to thinking about hits, fights and other on-ice violence: How far is too far? Why do players cross the line into recklessnes and injury to opponents? And how do the people charged with enforcing player safety make the right call?

It’s all open to interpretation: I’ll just say this: show me a hockey game where a fan, a ref, a player and the coaches all agreed on the calls, punishment and penalties. Because that would be a first for me and I’d like to capture it for posterity.

“In the judgment of the referee”: All the rules in the rulebook have this little caveat attached to them. Sure, the NHL added rule 48.1 and the junior leagues claim to be cracking down on fighting, head hits and other on-ice violence. But all of that depends on the on-ice interpretation or “take it upstairs” review of plays and penalties. Throw in repeat offenders being treated differently and playoffs being a whole different ball game, and it adds up to calls and punishments that don’t necessarily match the rulebook. That being said, what if they did follow the rulebook to the letter? What would a game look like? More importantly, how would they fit all the offending players into the penalty box, which according to the rulebook is supposed to hold up to five players. Rules followed to the letter interrupt game flow and would ultimately probably lead to good old fashioned bench clearing line brawls because there would be so many whistles and not enough getting it out of your system with an occasional roughing or fighting penalty. On the other hand, ignoring or interpreting the rules as “more like guidelines really” results in injury, danger and violence.

Desperate circumstances require desperate measures: For teams lucky enough to make it this far, playoffs are a lot like the Game of Thrones dialogue “you win or you die.” And that drives even the most sportsmanlike players to do some very unsportsmanlike things. Like Oliver Gabriel, who received a game misconduct in Game 2 a mere 31 seconds into the second period for what is apparently something he said to a player, though of course that comment is shrouded in secrecy and likely won’t be known for a while, if at all. Fans here are also a little stumped by why that and three kneeing penalties warranted the same penalty. But I do love a good mystery now and again, seeing as how it keeps those of us who write about the sport in business and all.

Culture of hockey: The somewhat uglier side of hockey (or not, depending on your viewpoint) such as hits, fights, enforcers and a good shove or two now and again are just as much a part of hockey as the pretty parts, like the perfect play, an OT bottle popping, game winning goal and shiny objects.  Most fans, myself included, would tell hockey non-appreciators that hits, fights and enforcers have their place in the game. But when is it the wrong time or opportunity to lay down a bone crunching hit, or drop the mitts? How does a player decide what’s too far or not far enough? You ask me, and I’ll tell you 23 minutes of penalties in a game, including three for kneeing, is too far. Not so much because the targets were my hometown team. But because at that point it signals that the player has all but lost his mind and has become a reckless endangerment to others. And that would be true no matter who the teams are. The bottom line is that violence of one degree or another is an integral part of the hockey culture. If you think about it, the proposed solution of taking fighting, hitting, etc. out of the game completely would probably result in more violence, because players would only be able to contain their frustration and anger for so long before they just drop the mitts and go at it. So maybe the answer isn’t to take it out of the game, maybe it’s this:

Moral of the story: The issue of violence in hockey is one that will keep hockey journalists and bloggers in business for eternity, because there will never be one easy answer or solution. You can take rules out of the book or put them back in. You can show players game tapes and train refs and officials on what constitutes a clean hit, a head hit, etc. But in the end, it’s the players who hold the key. And part of that lies in how they are punished when they don’t do the right thing. That’s why I’ve come up with a more realistic punishment to fit the crime here in the junior leagues. Never mind the on-ice or “take it upstairs” review.  In the case of some players like Brad Ross, they actually like being in the box so harsh punishment doesn’t always work for them. That’s why I’ve come up with a more realistic solution sure to drive them stark raving nuts, rethink a few things and promise never to commit the offending action again, ever. Similar to being grounded when we were kids or taking away Xbox or whatever parents do these days, I say take away something that may have even more meaning than ice time. For the Winterhawks, it would be their Monday night viewing of The Bachelor. Or perhaps leave them on a 16-hour bus ride to Spokane in the dead of winter with no iPod, no movies, and no noise cancelling headphones and nothing to do but homework. But alas, such unconventional punishment will never come to fruition. As for Bulmer, we know the one game suspension probably had zero effect, especially when you add to the equation that the Rockets are fighting for their existence in this series. Which leads me to the conclusion that sometimes the best punishment is that of the “what goes around comes around” variety. I certainly hope it’s not in the form of retaliation or cheap shots by the Winterhawks, mind. I was thinking more of the “success is the best revenge” variety. Like, say, a high scoring fourth game that takes the Kelowna Rockets out of the playoffs on their own home ice. Four is the magic number after all, and who doesn’t want to see #happybus in their Tweets?


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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com