BOCA RATON, FL -- This was like a tale of two cities. While Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was in effect telling fans to ‘love it or shove it’, a thousand miles away the NHL and its general managers were delivering a similar message about their game of hockey, albeit in a far more diplomatic way.
For his part, Boudreau was reacting to a potential protest in Montreal about head shots, organized through a Facebook petition in the wake of a serious injury suffered last week by the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty from a hit by Boston’s Zdeno Chara. The protest was scheduled to take place Tuesday night outside the Bell Centre where Washington was playing the Canadiens, and when asked about it by reporters after the Capitals morning skate, Boudreau was quick to dismiss any hand-wringing about the dangers of the sport.
“You don’t like it, don’t come to games,” he said.
No one down here in Boca was telling fans to stay away of course. But at the same time, the league’s assembled league power brokers were in a self-congratulatory mood over the state of their game, and not about to pay any lip service to those calling for a total head shot ban in the wake of the Pacioretty incident.
“There’s no support for a blanket rule,” commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Well not enough. The ‘zero tolerance’ option did have some supporters like Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, but the will of those fearing that it would change the character of the game too dramatically ultimately ensured that it had no chance of making the final recommendations after Wednesday’s closing session.
Shero said he wasn’t really surprised.
“I’m not sure if I thought I’d come out of here with zero tolerance,” Shero said. “But there’s an appetite among the managers to make the game safer and I do think we took a step in the right direction here.”
That step was an apparent consensus among the 30 managers about dealing with issue of player safety in more subtle ways, notably by tightening standards for calling charging and boarding and surprisingly, by imposing tougher and more frequent suspensions for offending players and even their coaches and teams. Mind you, none of that would have landed Chara a suspension for accidentally riding Pacioretty into the steel stanchion, according to the league’s chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell, the GMs felt that stiffer supplementary discipline would have a impact over time.
“We’re thinking about down the road, not a short term fix,” Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. “No one wants to see their guys penalized or suspended, but we want to encourage the hockey operations people to make them pay a price.”
Or maybe just to encourage players to think a little more in the first place. At least that’s the goal of more aggressively enforcing charging and boarding, plays that are statistically more responsible for concussions than illegal hits to the head.
“Without changing the fabric of our game, you can take out some of the more dangerous hits,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said. “The rules are in place to call these penalties.”
But they do need to be more clearly defined, everyone agreed.
“You need to set a clear standard that everyone from the players to the coaches and the referees understand because players will always test the limits of what they can get away with,” said future Hall of Famer Rob Blake, who joined the NHL hockey operations department after his retirement last spring.
“When I played you might have thought three steps wasn’t charging but you could maybe get away with five or six because nothing was spelled out. If we can make that clearer, we can go a long way toward preventing a lot more of these situations.”
And at the same time, protect the physical nature of the NHL.
“What’s distinctive about North American hockey is the body contact,” Burke said. “It’s different than anywhere else in the world and it’s an important part of what we sell and what our fans want to see.”
Gotta love it, right Bruce?