Ron Cook: NHL fails to police its game properly



It was bad enough the Penguins played the Columbus Blue Jackets Monday night without injured Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Tanner Glass and Beau Bennett. It was much worse that they had to go without injured Brooks Orpik and suspended James Neal. That was so unnecessary. Blame the NHL -- once a garage league, always a garage league.

The NHL continues to tolerate -- even encourage -- gratuitous violence in its otherwise elegant sport.

It proved that again Monday when it handed down a five-game suspension for Penguins winger James Neal, who went out of his way to intentionally knee Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand in the head Saturday night. Marchand is no angel. He's an agitator, a dirty player, one of the least respected players in the league. But he didn't deserve to take a shot in the head when he was down.

Video of Neal hit, punches to Orpik in Pens-Bruins game

This video shows the on-ice hits in the Penguins-Bruins game that led to suspensions for James Neal and Shawn Thornton. (12/10/2013)

Five games is not enough punishment for Neal, not if the league wants to get rid of the cheap shots. It should have been 10 games, even 20 games. That wouldn't just hurt Neal. It also would hurt the Penguins, who, like other NHL teams, should be responsible for their players' actions.

Neal is one of the top goal-scorers in the NHL. What he did to Marchand was thoughtless and selfish and showed no regard for his teammates.

This isn't the first time Neal has hurt the Penguins. He was fined once and suspended twice before. In Game 3 of the 2012 playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, Neal's blind-side hit on Flyers pest Sean Couturier earned him a suspension for Game 4. It also contributed to his growing reputation as a dirty player. He's a big reason the Penguins can't scream too loudly when one of their players is the victim of a dirty hit. They haven't exactly sent all choirboys on the ice in recent years. Matt Cooke, anyone? How about Arron Asham?

But enough about Neal and the Penguins.

In the next day or two, we will get to see what punishment the league gives Bruins forward Shawn Thornton. He skated up to Orpik in the same game Saturday night, slew-footed him to the ice and knocked him unconscious with two punches. It was nothing short of criminal assault. Orpik should consider bringing charges against Thornton.

If the NHL had any interest in stopping this sort of thing, it would suspend Thornton for the rest of the season. Of course, it doesn't and it won't. The guess here is Thornton will get 10 games, 15 tops. It will be that long only because Orpik was hurt and will miss some games. Marchand was able to continue in the game, sparing Neal a longer suspension. That's just one more way the league's discipline policy is a joke. Intent and the action should be the determining factors in punishment, not the result of a cheap hit.

Some people have tried to blame Thornton's actions on Orpik and say Orpik had the beating coming. Those people are sick. Just 21 seconds into the game, Orpik crushed Bruins winger Loui Eriksson and knocked him out of the match with a clean, but brutal hit. No penalty was called, nor should one have been. But that didn't stop Thornton from trying to lure Orpik into a fight moments later. Orpik declined the invitation. Wisely.

Since when should a player have to fight to defend a clean hit? Orpik did nothing wrong. Beyond that, the Penguins were playing the game without top-four defensemen Martin and Scuderi. Orpik would have hurt the team by taking a 5-minute fighting major and almost certainly would have taken a licking from Thornton to boot. Sadly, he ended up taking a beating, anyway.

Thornton and Neal are the creeps here, but they merely represent a bigger problem in the NHL. Too many players don't respect each other. They need to put an end to the nonsense by eliminating the cheap stuff. They also need to demand stiffer penalties for those who can't play their wonderful game cleanly.

The game officials have to do a better job policing the game, as well. In the Penguins-Bruins match, referees Brad Meier and Gord Dwyer let things get out of hand. When Thornton initially challenged Orpik to fight, he was given a 2-minute roughing penalty but should have received a 5-minute major and a game-misconduct. That would have spared Orpik what happened later. For his part, Neal, who received a 2-minute kneeing penalty, should have been given a 5-minute major and a game-misconduct. He shouldn't have been given the chance to come out of the penalty box and quickly score the Penguins' second goal with one of his amazing shots.

But Meier, Dwyer and the other game officials are operating in the heat of the battle. The NHL game is harder than ever to officiate because of the size and speed of the players. But what's the excuse for the league office, which gets plenty of time to evaluate the game tape before coming down with its punishment? How does it continually miss fair time for the crime? Why are the penalties always so light?

Once a garage league, always a garage league.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. 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.

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