It's easy to blame NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the league's owners and its general managers. They have shown virtually no interest in eliminating the cheap headshots that are ruining their players' careers or at least threatening them. Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and general manager Ray Shero have spoken out about trying to make the game safer with tougher punishments for those who commit the cheap hits and their teams, but they've received little support. The view of the majority seems to be: "Our game is just fine the way it is even if players are getting hurt. We'd sure hate to lose Sidney Crosby as the face of our league because of a concussion, but if it happens, it happens. We'll just find another face."
It's also easy to blame NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell. His inconsistent and often mind-boggling handling of punishment for the headshots has done nothing to eliminate them. The Penguins' Matt Cooke tries to take out the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh with an elbow late in the season and gets a 17-game suspension. The Penguins' Chris Kunitz does practically the same thing to Tampa Bay's Simon Gagne in the playoffs and gets one game. The New York Islanders' Trevor Gillies receives nine games for hitting the Penguins' Eric Tangradi from behind and taunting him after Tangradi is down and out in a game in February. The Philadelphia Flyers' Mike Richards knocks Buffalo's Tim Connolly out of the playoffs with a brutal hit from behind and gets no punishment.
That's garage league stuff.
But where's the blame for the players?
Go back to the Richards' hit on Connolly in Game 6 of the Flyers-Sabres series. It prompted the usual vitriol from the Buffalo room. "Unbelievable," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "We lose a player for the rest of the game [and also Game 7]. That's the kind of hit the league has been talking about that's dangerous."
But it also prompted this from Sabres coach Lindy Ruff: "It's a lack of respect for another player on the ice."
That one really hit home with me.
Where has that respect among the players gone?
I understand the violent nature of hockey. There are going to be unavoidable hits because of the speed of the game. Players always are going to be injured no matter how safe they try to make the sport.
I also know that players always are looking for an edge, especially in the playoffs. Most things are fair game. If they know a guy has a shoulder injury or a knee problem, they are not above targeting it. I think about Game 2 of the Detroit-Phoenix series when the Coyotes' Shane Doan left the Red Wings' Johan Franzen with a bloody face after a clean hit into the boards. Franzen left to get 21 stitches and a plug for his nose before returning only to get -- you guessed it -- a face wash from Doan.
I spoke to a number of Penguins who watched that game and everyone applauded Doan. Darn right Franzen's face was a fair target.
But the deliberate hits to the head have no place in hockey. It's hard to imagine what made Cooke go after McDonagh with his elbow or Kunitz after Gagne. How can you explain what Gillies and Richards were thinking when they took out Tangradi and Connolly?
Did they really believe they could get away with it?
Oh, that's right.
Richards did get away with it.
The players say they are confused about the way Campbell hands out his discipline. How can they not be confused? The punishment for Cooke -- the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs -- seemed harsh but fair at the time. It generated much hope -- at least at Penguins headquarters -- that the NHL would take similar tough stands against other cheap-shot perpetrators. But that's hardly happened.
Cooke's punishment now seems like little more than Campbell and Bettman getting back at Lemieux and Shero for having the nerve to speak out and trying to make the league better.
"They want tougher penalties? We'll give 'em tougher penalties."
But the players lose me when they say they don't know what's a clean hit and what's not anymore. Trust me, they know. You can't tell me that Cooke, Gillies, Kunitz and Richards didn't know what they were doing was wrong. They just didn't care if they hurt someone.
"It's a lack of respect for another player on the ice ... "
There still are two rounds of playoffs to go.
I won't even begin to predict the Stanley Cup winner.
But I can predict this with some certainty: There will be plenty of cheap shots, more players will be hurt and Campbell will confound everybody with the punishment he hands down.
Did somebody say garage league?
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.