NHL Can’t Crack Down on Dirty Play Without The Players Buying In.

Halfway through the opening round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, I’m struck by what appears an unusually high number of incidents involving dirty play.

Every postseason features its share of cheap shots, usually blamed on the heightened intensity and competition at this time of year. These incidents tend to involve so-called “grit” players whose mission is life appears to be attempting to cripple a rival club’s better players. Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cooke’s recent kneeing of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie is a prime example. In Cooke’s case, his brainless actions undid 18 months of clean play following a lengthy suspension in 2011.

It’s not always the goons or the grit guys who garner reputations for questionable tactics. Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin, Pittsburgh Penguins sniper James Neal, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith and Anaheim Ducks winger Corey Perry are among the NHL’s best players. They also have suspension histories.   All-but-retired Chris Pronger is a future Hall-of-Famer who was also among the dirtiest players in the game.  Go back further in NHL history, and the names of Hall-of-Famers Eddie Shore, Gordie Howe,Ted Lindsay, Bobby Clarke and Mark Messier are among those renowned nearly as much for their dirty tactics as for their stellar hockey skills.

This year there seems to be more incidents of unsportsmanlike play than usual from skilled stars. For example:

The opening round of this year's NHL playoffs has seen more dirty play than usual.

The opening round of this year’s NHL playoffs has seen more dirty play than usual.

Boston’s Milan Lucic spearing Detroit’s Danny DeKesyer in the nuts. No penalty, but he received supplemental discipline of a $5000.00 fine. After being fined Lucic claimed his actions were out of character, conveniently forgetting he pulled a similar stunt earlier this season on Montreal’s Alexei Emelin.

Los Angeles’ Mike Richards spears San Jose’s Logan Couture. Received a double-minor.

Anaheim’s Corey Perry spears Dallas Jamie Benn in the groin. Received a two-minute “slashing” penalty.

Chicago’s Brent Seabrook hammers St. Louis captain David Backes with a high hit. Seabrook receives a three-game suspension, while Backes suffers a concussion and has yet to return to action.

Factor in Cooke’s kneeing Barrie, and in less than a week there’s been five significant incidents of dirty play before the first round was even half-over.

In recent years there’s been lots of complaining about NHL discipline, how the league doesn’t do enough to crack down on dirty players in particular and dirty play in general. While the league could do more to enforce the rules, and has made many attempts over the past twenty years or so, ultimately these crackdowns don’t amount to much. Inevitably there are complaints from players, coaches, general managers, fans and some pundits and bloggers over how the officials slow the game down and rob it of its energy. Slowly but surely the old habits creep back.

The rules that have stuck – the clampdown on blindside hits, particularly to the head – haven’t significantly reduced the instances of head injuries from those cheap shots. Meanwhile, players seem to be getting more liberal in the usage of their sticks, as we saw with Lucic, Richards and Perry.

Defenders of “old time hockey” complain the increase in such stick work is due to  the implementation of the instigator rule over 20 years ago, that in cracking down on fighting, the players are turning to dirtier tactics to settle their differences. Except that’s not true, as this article clearly demonstrates. Fighting didn’t happen as often in the Original Six era as it does today, and while it is way down from the brawling heyday of the late-1970s through the late-1980s, instances of fighting in today’s NHL is actually higher than it was in the early 1970s, though the numbers have fluctuated since the turn of this century.

Given the growing concerns over the impact of concussion injuries upon NHL players in the short and long term, there’s been increasing calls for the league to do more about dirty play. The problem, however, is the players appear unwilling to do anything about it.

NHL critics tend to overlook the fact the league cannot act arbitrarily with rule changes. It also needs the approval of the NHL Players Association. And while the NHLPA talks about cleaning up the game, especially the need for more respect between opponents, they’ve done little to be proactive about it.

Ultimately it’s up to the players to decide what kind of game they want. The league has continuously attempted to ease in rules to improve player safety. There’s now a department of player safety to address dirty play, including the use of supplemental discipline. Sadly, there’s little evidence to suggest it’s having any significant impact on reducing reckless play.

That’s not to suggest that the league should just give up  trying. It should continue working with the PA to do all it can to improve the quality of the product. But it takes two to tango, and so far the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. Too often the PA appears more interested in protecting the negotiating rights of its membership than ensuring their on-ice safety. The players talk about the need for more respect among each other and doing more to clean up the game, but there’s been little real willingness on their part to do anything about it.

Until the players’ attitudes start changing, don’t expect to see much change in the instance of cheap shots and dirty play.

4 Comments

  1. Great post Lyle! You gave great examples of players acting unsportsman-like in the playoffs this year, as well as an assessment of what the league has failed to do to protect players. The player’s association must claim a big part of the responsibility for the lack of cutting down on these types of penalties and for the subsequent injuries incurred. Shame on the league as well!

  2. You have clearly gotten your information in books and not from experience. Lucic, for example, was borded dangerously earlier in that game with no call. Fine. Cant fight him cause people like you will be offended, you dont want to hurt him by retaliating with a truly dirty hit so… Love tap the guy who- mind you- is wearing a cup, and should know that bording wont go unanswered. Now back to truly dirty guy, how about Tedd Batruzzi… Who is going to CRIMINAL TRIAL for assault for his actions IN A GAME!!! But is still playing… But your right, Lucic is a “dirty player”.
    How about matt cooke, or john scott, or half a dozen truly dirty players whos actions cause retaliatory plays that themselves are borderline. Those retaliating players are not being dirty they are protecting themselves or teammates. Remove those head hunters and wreckless playes and youll remive most retaliatory actios as well.
    Moral of the story: you can not take 4 second of a game to show how “dirty” a player is. Period.
    I do agree however that the PA must take a bigger share of the responsibility.

    • Matt, you’re defending the indefensible. Nothing justifies spearing an opponent. Nothing. That’s the sort of reaction you expect from a no-talent thug, not a truly skilled player like Lucic, who did that not once but twice, in two different games with two different players. The gist of my piece was that more and more skill players like Lucic are resorting to the type of cheap shots expected from low-talent goons. I also called for the league and the PA to do more to crack down on this type of thing.

    • @ Matt

      I am concerned that your opinion is shared by other that call themselves fans. Those same people who watch hockey for the fights and body checks and not the talent on the ice.
      Lucic’s spear was not a love tap. Anyone who attempts to justify his actions as anything less than being frustrated after being checked is a fool and probably shares your idea that hockey should be more of a blood sport.
      We have evolved from the gladiator arena of old. That is not hockey. If that is what you are looking for might I recommend a show call U F C.
      I enjoy watching the physicality of hockey, but the head shots and spearing needs to be removed from the game, before someone else gets seriously injured.
      And NO its not making the game for softies or anything else. I want to see better talent and leave the goons at home.