On the Penguins: Rule 48 doesn't go far enough
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For the past three weeks, vast tracts of cyberspace have been consumed by discussions of the blow Washington's David Steckel delivered to Sidney Crosby's head in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field Jan. 1.
There's universal agreement that Steckel did, in fact, hit Crosby in the head.
Beyond that, reaching a consensus has been impossible. At best.
Those who believe the hit was inadvertent can look at a replay and come away convinced they are correct.
Those who have no doubt that Steckel knew exactly what he was doing can watch the same footage, then point to it as evidence that they are right.
And a lot of people -- likely the majority -- still can't say, with any conviction, whether Steckel was guilty of delivering an intentional cheap shot to an unsuspecting opponent, or if he is innocent on all counts.
What can't be debated, though, is that Crosby has not played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion.
It might never be known whether Crosby's injury was caused by Steckel's hit or one delivered four nights later by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman, who smacked Crosby's head off the Consol Energy Center glass with a hit from behind, but, frankly, that really does not matter.
What counts is that the NHL has lost its most prominent figure, the Penguins are without the services of the game's best player and ticket-buyers are being denied an opportunity to watch an extraordinary performer.
Precisely who is the winner in that group?
The NHL reacted to Matt Cooke's wicked blindside check on Boston center Marc Savard in March -- a hit that ended Savard's season and caused months of problems for him -- by instituting Rule 48, which mandates a major penalty (with the option of a match penalty) for "a lateral or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted."
A nice first step, but it does not go far enough.
It is time to outlaw shots to the head. All of them. Accidental, intentional or otherwise does not matter, at least until the conversation shifts to the proper punishment for a specific violation.
(Incidental contact with the head of an opponent who happens to bend over as he is about to be hit should not be treated the same as, say, one of those crushing Scott Stevens-style checks in which the victim is unconscious before he hits the ice.) An all-encompassing ban might seem radical and even simplistic, but it is clear there should be no gray area, no room for doubt.
Making all head shots illegal won't eliminate them, but it will reduce the frequency, and players have proven they can adjust to whatever rule changes are introduced. Rest assured, the product won't suffer if the number of guys getting their brains scrambled declines.
Big hits have been an integral part of the game for many decades, and hockey would lose much of its appeal if were to be reduced to figure skating with pucks. Take contact out of the game, and you might as well take away the game altogether.
But much as some fans enjoy seeing a member of their team fell a despised rival -- think anyone who saw Darius Kasparaitis KO Philadelphia center Eric Lindros with a shoulder to the chin at Mellon Arena has forgotten it? -- blows to the head simply have the potential to do too much long-term damage to be tolerated any longer.
Players are too big, too fast, too strong -- and, in a lot of cases, too disrespectful of their peers -- to allow them to launch themselves at an opponent's head without knowing there will be a harsh price to pay.
If head shots continue to be tolerated, it is only a matter of time before someone leaves the ice not on a stretcher, but in a body bag.
Defenseman Ben Lovejoy was born and bred in New England, so it is no surprise that he described himself as "devastated" by the Patriots' loss to the New York Jets last Sunday. Plenty of people in that region shared his feeling.
Lovejoy, though, had an interesting perspective on the game because he not only is a football fan, but an athlete who competes at the highest level of his sport.
"I was more nervous before that game than I've been before a lot of hockey games," he said. "With hockey, I'm playing, and I know I can affect the outcome.
"Here, you have to trust the other guys. You have to trust guys you only know on TV."
New York Islanders ... It is too late to salvage their season, but New York has some good young talent and center John Tavares is again looking like the cornerstone on which a quality team can be built.
First Published January 23, 2011 12:00 am