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Canucks' Rome caught up in evolving game, penalties

by | CBSSports.com
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BOSTON -- Vancouver Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome would have been in the clear had his hit occurred eight years ago.

Scott Stevens certainly was.

Stanley Cup Finals: Canucks-Bruins
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The New Jersey Devils defenseman --- who, unlike Rome, was known for brutal hits --- received adulation for an eerily similar collision that left Anaheim Ducks forward Paul Kariya unconscious for a few moments in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. NHL officials even went on the record at the time calling it a good, clean play, possibly emboldened by the fact Kariya came back and scored a goal in the game.

As Rome found out Tuesday, we're now living in a concussion-sensitive world as both research into brain injuries and the games lost by concussed players like Kariya have drawn attention to the issue. Rome was given a four-game ban -- the longest suspension in Finals history -- for a shoulder-to-head collision that left Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton with a severe concussion that kept him in the hospital overnight.

"They are trying to take those hits out of the game," Bruins forward Chris Kelly said. "We are trying to avoid these hits. We don't want to see players injured like that. Contact is part of hockey. We grow up getting hit, but concussions are more of an issue nowadays more than they ever have been."

The league instituted a rule that banned blindside headshots at the end of last season, although Rome's hit didn't fall into that category since it was considered interference. Confused? Don't worry. It's not like the league has been entirely consistent on the issues of heads hits in recent months.

"I had a coach call me this morning to tell me, 'Focus on the things that are within your control and they're making it up as they go along, so don't worry about it,'" Canucks coach Canucks Alain Vigneault said. "I don't feel that way. I think those guys are trying to do the best job they can in very challenging circumstances."

Stanley Cup Finals suspensions
PlayerYearGamesReason
Aaron Rome, VAN20114Interference
Chris Pronger, ANA20071Blow to head
Ville Nieminen, CGY20041Hit behind
Jiri Fischer, DET20021Cross check

Rome, in fact, was the victim of a questionable hit delivered by San Jose's Jamie McGinn in the conference finals that left him with a concussion. McGinn received a five-minute major and was ejected -- just as Rome was on Monday night -- but not suspended. In the same series, Sharks forward Ben Eager was not suspended for his blindside check of Canucks forward Daniel Sedin. In the first round, Canucks forward Raffi Torres also escaped suspension for his hit on Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, who missed two games due to a concussion that resulted from the headshot.

And those are just a few instances of the league's stilted rulings involving only the Canucks during the playoffs.

"This stands alone," Mike Murphy, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations, said. "You have to deal with it separately. Whether it's precedent or not doesn't concern me. Trying to do the right thing is what we did here."

The league should be commended for any and all attempts meant to protect players' heath, even if Tuesday's ruling wasn't met with much favor among Canucks players, coaches and fans.

NHL disciplinarian Mike Murphy says the league is 'trying to do the right thing.' (AP)  
NHL disciplinarian Mike Murphy says the league is 'trying to do the right thing.' (AP)  
"You never like seeing a guy lying there on a stretcher," Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard said. "Only people on the ice understand how fast it is. That's only multiplied when you get into the Stanley Cup Finals. As a team, we don't agree with the suspension."

Concussions remain on the rise in a sport where the players continue to get bigger and faster. The league's most recognizable player, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, was lost for the latter half of the season due to a concussion. Then there was the revelation that former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, who died last summer of a heart attack, showed signs of the same debilitating brain disorder first discovered in football players and boxers.

"Even from when I came into the league in '99, the speed of the game has changed significantly," Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said. "The new rules they implemented made it a faster game. Everybody can skate. All the players can gather that speed, so the collisions are going to be big. There's a lot of responsibility [that] goes with that."

A transition in punishment has also subtly occurred in recent years. Frontier justice that once kept players in check has given way to the league's so-called supplemental discipline system. You can blame -- or credit -- the instigator rule that suspends a player for initiating a fight for that.

"It's a burden that falls on the league to make those decisions," Ference said. "I know it's not an easy job for them. You probably have a whole city thinking one way and a whole city thinking another way. It's difficult. As players, it's out of our control and you leave it in their hands."

The league's general managers will hear a presentation on Wednesday from former NHL player Brendan Shanahan, the head of the blue ribbon panel tasked to investigate concussions. Recommendations will be made and some new rules -- which hopefully will give players and coaches a little more clarity to what is and isn't legal -- could arise.

"The game is changing," Canucks forward Manny Malhotra said. "It's evolving for the better."

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