NFL should follow NHL's lead on cleaning up dirty hits

by | National Columnist

Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's new bad cop/bad cop on the beat, was, in the immortal words of the noted hockey fan of yore Richard Pryor, "handing out time like it's lunch" on Monday.

And good. Even if he's overreacting, good. Especially if he's overreacting.

Five players have lost 14 games of regular-season time and all the preseason games they have left for head shots, boarding and general mischief well beyond the pale, and more to the point, Shanahan has been explaining their crimes in exhausting detail and with repeated showings of the crimes and transgressors on video.

So it's a start.

The NHL is punishing goons like the Flames' Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (left) for dirty hits by taking away games. (AP)  
The NHL is punishing goons like the Flames' Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (left) for dirty hits by taking away games. (AP)  
The NHL has taken the step the other sports still won't -- punishing perps and the teams that pay them for the dirty plays that occasionally pop up in a contest of sport. Not by taking money, which at that level of the game is still essentially free, but games, which aren't.

And while the NFL goes through its typical inert hand-wringing on Michael Vick's complaints about lack of official protection afforded other quarterbacks, the NHL is at least going after this the right way.

James Wisniewski, the Columbus defenseman, is the new momentary poster lad for the league's new hard-nosed approach. For laying out Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck forearm-to-head after the end of a period, and for having a lengthy suspension sheet already, he lost eight regular-season games, a hair less than 10 percent of the year.

That's a pretty big bite. And it should be. Fining has never been enough when it comes to dirty play, and suspending them a game here and a game there has always produced no results, so more games and a good amount of public shaming is the next step.

That is, if you're serious about cleaning up your sport.

It helps that Shanahan looks on the videos of the suspensions that the NHL has thoughtfully provided like he's been up for 80 hours and is in the mood to bust a bottle open over someone's skull. It would be better if he had a cigarette hanging off his bottom lip and talked Brooklynese, but you take what you can get.

But we still have to reserve judgment here until it comes to the regular season, and the player in the crosshairs isn't Wisniewski, but a high-profile ticket-mover and game-changer performing during the regular season -- maybe late in the regular season.

Then we'll know how haggard Shanahan can get, and how pissed he gets when he has to crack a guy.

It is clear by the way the NHL hides injuries in the most laughable way ("somewhere on his physical aura" is the next step after "upper body" and "lower body") that the players target injured parts of other players, which is its own ethical conundrum. In short, nobody can claim to be pure here. Everyone does it, everyone knows it's done.

But it has taken injuries to some of the game's highest-profile players, most notably S.P. Crosby of the Pittsburgh Comically Flightless Birds, for the NHL's general managers to figure out that boys-will-be-boys is no way to get them to play as men.

So enormous suspensions, and public shaming, must occur now. The next step, massive fines for the teams, would finish the picture. It would be "institutional control" with actual teeth, as opposed to the candypants version the NCAA engages in, that would get everyone in the game on board.

Because fines hurt the player. Suspensions hit the coach. But team fines hit the owner, and the owner can always take the elevator down to ice level and acquaint the perps with unemployment laws. Do all three, and you have everyone on board, except maybe some whiny media types who say the game is turning too sissy-mary.

Well, they had the game for a century. Now it's someone else's turn, and Brendan Shanahan is the face of the new movement.

That is, if it is a movement and not just eye candy for the moment. And trust us, Brendan Shanahan does not look like eye candy in those clips. He looks like he'd bite the head off a zebra.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay


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