Canucks and Beyond

Rome & Boychuk: Debating the NHL's Punishment Policies

06/15/2011 at 2:20am EDT

From what Mike Gillis said tonight, Mason Raymond has at least five months of recovery in front of him. Gillis as much as described the injury as a “broken back” in his press conference, and the horror of this whole situation will certainly go down in the history books as a terrible addendum when we recall this Stanley Cup Final, whoever wins it.

About the non-suspension of Johnny Boychuk, I have no objections to that ruling. (At least in an ideal world where common sense rules the day, anyway.) I don’t think Raymond’s terrible injury was either Boychuk’s intent, nor anything he could have forseen by following through on his hit into the boards. A one-in-a-million terrible result.

However, the hit was certainly worthy of an interference call—no puck anywhere around—and that’s where the NHL ends up looking ridiculous in this whole mess. Mike Murphy, widely lauded as “finally getting it right” with the harsh Rome suspension, now looks like a man who was flying by the seat of his pants when he made that call earlier in the series.

Dan Murphy of Sportsnet had a series of Tweets on Tuesday that said it well:

IMO NHL botched Rome susp with its explanation. 4 games for late hit? Not a chance. Give him 1-2 for a late hit to the head.

With Rome ruling, NHL has backed itself into a corner with Boychuk. Interference+severe injury=4 games for Rome but not Boychuk?

Bottom line the NHL made it up as it went along with Rome and now looks foolish for having no consistency.

Like me, Murphy is also clear that he does not feel Boychuk’s actions warranted any suspension. His problem, like mine, is with the consistency and the conflicting message the NHL is sending.

Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton was certainly a late hit, and while Rome might argue that he couldn’t have stopped, I think most would agree there appeared to be some time to ease off the contact. But let’s get real here: we’re talking about one very fast moment in time—an instant of decision—and Rome made the wrong one. That doesn’t make him evil, just human and wrong. Not unlike Boychuk.

And let’s get real about something else: if Horton never sustained any sign of injury in that play—headshot or not—the absolute strongest penalty the NHL hands down is the 1-2 games that Murphy mentions. Which I think would have been the right call, either way.

Penalties and Injuries

Which brings me to my first point: I realize many will disagree, but personally, I’ve always believed injuries being linked to penalization is a completely foolish plan. You want to wait till someone’s seriously injured for a serious consequence to be handed down? Which basically means you want guys, who are playing a game for high stakes at 100 mph, to make a split second decision that figures out “If I do this illegal play, I bet I can do it to my team’s advantage without causing a devastating injury.”

Assuming Boychuk and Rome both had no intention to see their opponent end up in a hospital, then basically that’s the decision they need to make in those seconds. Both of them were willing to do an illegal play, clearly, but presumably hoping it worked out without their team—or themselves—being excessively punished for it.

But the game is simply too fast and too dangerous to factor “Will the guy get seriously hurt?” into the action. It’s stupid to even expect it to be.

The decision they should have in that moment is simply “If I do this, no matter what the result, I get 2 minutes (or 2 games; or 10 games, etc) knocked off my playing time.” Whether the opposing player might be injured isn’t a rational thing to sort out in that split-second moment. The thing is, the most inoffensive plays can hurt someone terribly, while the most dangerous plays can result in no injury. Till the next time.

In the Rome case, if Horton just gets taken out of the play without suffering that concussion, I’d still argue that Rome deserved a 1-2 game suspension. Bottom line: Rome should have been suspended based on his actions, not the results. Same with Boychuk… which, as I said, I would normally have thought should equal NO suspension.

But then Mike Murphy showed up and stated that his decision on the Rome suspension was based on the play and the injury. Four games seemed harsh, but okay, fine. But then, should we not then assume that Boychuk’s infraction (even though it wasn’t called in the game) and the resulting devastating injury to Raymond, lead to the same penalty, upon NHL review?

Again, I don’t think that in a world where Mike Murphy didn’t already hand out the suspension he did to Rome, that Boychuk deserved anything more than a 2 minute penalty for interference, despite the horrific consequences of his play. But we don’t live in that world anymore, because Murphy says he decides suspensions based on illegal plays + injuries.

Horton’s was apparently worthy of that rule. But Mason Raymond and his fractured vertebrae? Somehow that didn’t satisfy the NHL’s stated guidelines.

Deciding Punishment

The NHL is right to penalize harshly, and I never said one single complaining word about the Rome suspension. Frankly, I could see there was logic in removing a player from the series that was going to draw a ton of negative attention. To me, it seemed like the NHL was remembering lessons learned with the Steve Moore/Todd Bertuzzi situation of years past—Moore not being penalized for his injurious hit to Markus Naslund in the previous game being what led to that horrible chain of events where Bertuzzi sought his revenge on Moore several days later, also fracturing his vertebrae and ending Moore’s NHL career.

So while Rome being benched for the series seemed extreme, I could see how it reduced the likelihood of Bruins’ retaliation (not to mention, bad PR for the game) while maybe a setting a new standard for punishments.

But now you have to wonder: perhaps it was never about “getting it right” and being cautious and strong with punishment. Maybe it was always just about appeasing the loudest critics, whose voices rose up dramatically with Horton’s injury.

It seems like the NHL’s police department has decided to pick and choose their bad guys, when it suits them and their PR. For Mason Raymond, that sucks. For the Canucks, that sucks. And even for Boychuk, that sucks, because now he’ll be forever associated with this nonsense, despite a play that had a one-in-a-million horrible result.

The NHL needs to have standards. And while I understand that subjectivity is a necessary part of that, a 4-games vs zero-consequences suspension pattern isn’t a subjective response… it’s a joke.

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