There is something seriously wrong with our game of hockey today. Maybe itís just me, but it seems as though the players have lost all respect for themselves and their fellow players. They have lost respect for the rules and the striped people who enforce them. Ultimately, the players have lost all respect for the game.

Every hockey player that makes it to the NHL level has one dream: win the Stanley Cup, and win at all costs. With so many teams in the NHL and with the level of competition as high as it is, it has become harder and harder to even qualify for the postseason. We are seeing this with the tight race in the lower echelon of both conferences. The battle for the 8th and final playoff spot in both conferences could come right down to the last game. Along the way, that battle just to make it in, and ultimately the desire to be the team that wins it all seems to have provoked an all out carnage among all players. It is every player for himself out there. But is it just the battle for the playoffs that has brought about this lack of respect for the game? In some ways, yes, but if you look at the whole picture, I say no.

It used to be that there was an unwritten rule in the NHL, protect the star players and protect them at all costs. Probably the best example of this was when Wayne Gretzky played. The unwritten law was that you didnít go near Gretzky with a cross check or a trip or a slash or anything. If you did, you had better have been prepared to suffer the consequences. When he played for the Edmonton Oilers, you would have had everyone from Dave Semenko to Marty McSorley to even Kevin Lowe to deal with.

Nowadays, the star players are no longer safe. I donít care if you are Pavel Bure, Mario Lemieux, Mike Modano, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, or any of the star players that play in the league today. Sadly enough, it doesnít seem to matter who you are. Why has this happened?

I think that this lack of respect has been present for several years now, but has really escalated this past season. We are seeing now an increasing amount of slashes, cross checks, sucker punches and even abuse of authority going on in the game today. We have even had a few brawls in a few selected games. There is no question that penalty minutes are at an all time high. In extreme cases, however, suspensions have been lighter than they have been. I have observed that if a player gets suspended that the length of it seems to be less if they are on a team that has a chance of making the playoffs. I am seeing more and more that if you represent an expansion team or a team that was out of the race long ago that suspensions are longer. Perhaps it is just me.

We can all remember back to the 1996 playoffs when then Colorado Avalanche player Claude Lemieux, who now plays for the Phoenix Coyotes, checked Detroit Red Wings player Kris Draper into the players bench. Draper went into the bench face first and ended up breaking his jaw and losing a few chicklets. Detroit has never forgotten this incident, because ever since then, every time these two teams meet, it is an out and out war on the ice. The best example of this was when the two teams met again the following year in the playoffs. In one game, there were 4 brawls.

This I am sure led to the implementation of the two referee system. They needed that extra body in stripes out there to break up the fights. I canít say that it has made any difference in the officiating or in the outcome of games. Even with 2 referees, they still canít get the penalty calls right, and they seem to look at each other wondering who will dare blow the whistle. As a result, there are more missed calls than ever before. The players know this and have taken advantage of it.

Even with the two referee system in place, we witnessed what provoked the biggest suspension of all time. Of course I am talking about the Marty McSorley-Donald Brashear incident. Brashear, then of the Vancouver Canucks, was (and still is) known as a bruiser that would fight at the very mention of the word. On this particular night, however, the Canucks were winning their game against the Bruins, and were in a fight for a playoff spot. McSorley, who has also been known to drop the gloves, was trying to get Brashear to fight him late in the game. When Brashear didnít respond, McSorley clubbed him across the head with his hockey stick. Every hockey fan will remember Brashear at that point falling head first against the ice and knocking himself out cold. The NHL suspended McSorley for an entire year. This was two years ago and he has never returned to the NHL. It was an unfortunate thing to happen, but the punishment that followed was unprecedented. Brashear was able to resume playing the following season and would eventually be traded to Philadelphia.

In the playoffs last year, tough forward Tie Domi of the Toronto Maple Leafs checked Scott Niedermayer of the New Jersey Devils into the corner glass so hard that he too was knocked out cold. Domi was then suspended for the remainder of the playoffs or 10 games, whichever came first. As it turned out, the Leafs only played three more games before they were eliminated, and Domi carried over his remaining 7 games into this season.

This all begs the question: Why doesnít the NHL issue more severe suspensions when something like this happens? The two examples I just put forth were exceptional and the time fit the crime. It has been said that one should measure the suspension based on how much time the injured player misses. Others have said that the suspension should be enough so that the team would lose that little bit of chemistry long enough to lose ground in the standings. Then we have others who would say donít suspend players at all, just charge them a fine.

Something seems to be very wrong with the penalties issued this year against flagrant fouls. I saw Keith Tkachuk slash Lyle Odelein and only get two games. I saw Eric Cairns sucker punch Radek Bonk, and he too only got two games. Chris Pronger cross checked Brendan Morrow, not once, but twice, and he also got two games. St. Louis and the NY Islanders are both teams that are fighting for their playoff lives, so two games would definitely hurt, and all of the players on the receiving end of these incidents have resumed playing. However, the light suspensions that were handed out are only a slap on the wrist and may encourage players rather than send a message.

On the flipside of this, I saw Andre Roy get in a fight with Sandy McCarthy and get 13 games for jumping out of the box and getting mouthy with the officials. The suspension breaks down as 10 games automatically just for jumping out of the box and 3 games for abuse of official. While nobody is feeling sorry for Roy in that situation, you have to wonder why there arenít more automatic suspensions like this.

Here are three things the NHL can do to maybe restore a little respect for the game among the players:

  1. Do away with the 2 referee system. It hasnít ever made sense to do it. It certainly hasnít improved the quality of officiating. The two officials seem to get confused, and as I already mentioned they kind of look at each other and wonder which one will blow the whistle. This often results in a non-call. Along with this we will want to empower the referee to make more calls and make them stand instead of going upstairs. The league is already looking at putting a replay monitor in the penalty box so that the referee can look at a play instead of a so-called supervisor upstairs. The technology is available, I say go for it.

  2. Automatic icing. Not just for the flow of the game, but to stop players from getting injured needlessly during that race for the puck. We saw at the Olympics that this not only sped up the game but nobody got hurt. I have seen too many times this year where players have got hurt racing for the puck in the corner. Ryan Smyth and Glen Wesley are just a couple of examples. Blow the whistle right away, no questions asked. I know there are some situations where this can be argued. I recently saw a game where a losing team pulled their goalie, and then the opposing team iced the puck and then won the race to it and were able to score in an empty net. However, they were going to win the game anyway. If you just simply blow the whistle I sure the amount of concussions and serious into the boards injuries will decrease. The league is also looking at removing the red line and the 15 second faceoff, but realistically, I think the automatic icing could be implemented easily enough. The red line and faceoff will need to be looked at in further detail, but please, before somebody gets seriously injured, blow the cotton picking whistle!

  3. Implement more automatic suspensions. If you get ejected from a game for any reason, why not make it an automatic 1 or 2 game suspension? How about an automatic suspension for sucker punching somebody? Can we make an excessive unsportsmanlike conduct suspension (and name it after Theo Fleury)? More automatic suspensions for serious infractions and more severe fines to go along with them will hopefully make a player think twice before they act. For the more serious McSorley type infractions, we could implement something whereby the player forfeits a third of their salary along with the suspension. That would probably be frowned upon by the NHLPA, but so be it. We need to get these cowardly flagrant fouls out of our game. Donít get me wrong, Iím all for a good fight now and again, but be smart about it.

Of course, these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. The NHL is constantly looking at ways to improve the game. This off season, look for the NHL to implement more rule changes and more ways to improve not only the flow of the game, but to hopefully police the game as well. If we can restore some respect among the players of the league, hockey will be all that much more enjoyable to watch.

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