By Sean Hartnett
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Whether or not they're willing to admit it, the NHL has a major problem on their hands. Last year in the playoffs, Chicago Blackhawks star winger Marian Hossa was taken off the ice in a stretcher and sent to a hospital by ambulance following a head shot delivered by Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Torres sprung off the ice to drive his shoulder into Hossa's jaw and was handed a 25-game suspension, eventually shortened to 21 games following an appeal.
On Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, New York Rangers assistant captain Brad Richards was fortunate not to suffer a similar fate as Hossa did last April. Buffalo Sabres enforcer Patrick Kaleta cross-checked Richards from behind, driving a helpless and unknowing Richards head-first into the boards.
Richards ended up on his back, writhing in pain. He threw his gloves off immediately in reaction to what he would describe as "hurting all over." Richards would later question Kaleta's place in the game.
"I don't know what game he plays, actually," Richards said. "He doesn't play hockey to begin with. Same guy, all the time."
Kaleta was rightfully ejected from the game and his fate is now in the hands of NHL head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan and the league's Department of Player Safety. Unfortunately, the maximum suspension Kaleta will receive is five games as he will take part in a phone hearing rather than an in-person hearing. Shanahan is dropping the ball by letting Kaleta off the hook this easily.
In addition to his role as the league's "dean of discipline," Shanahan serves as the NHL's VP of hockey and business operations. It isn't good business for the NHL to allow the frightening image of star players sprawled out on the ice in serious pain to trump the breathtaking athleticism, powerful, yet clean checking and dramatic moments that the NHL produces on a nightly basis.
Unfortunately, ugly moments like these are the images that spring to mind among casual hockey fans and serve as ammunition for those who despise the sport. That image needs to change -- immediately. It must be replaced by the images of skillful players such as Rick Nash or Patrick Kane making dazzling moves to beat defenders and roof the puck past an an all-world goaltender like Tuukka Rask or Jonathan Quick.
That's the NHL I know and love. In my eyes, the NHL is about skill, elite competition and meaningful rivalries. Competition and rivalries are great and are meant to be enjoyed. They're supposed to get the blood rushing of players and fans alike. Unfortunately, too many players aren't getting the message on the seriousness of head shots and boarding incidents.
It's time that the NHL delivers a stronger message to violators of the rules and spirit of their sport. Torres' suspension was a good start, though it could be argued that he got off lightly with a 21-game ban.
Want these kind of incidents to go away? A 25-game suspension won't stop a thug like Kaleta from doing this again. Kaleta's reputation around the league has already been set in stone. He knows exactly what he's doing and is near the top of the list of players reviled by fellow professionals.
The only thing that's going to stop a noted cheap-shot artist like Kaleta is a full 82-game suspension. Sound harsh? Well, that's because it is. Kaleta's list of disgraceful acts on the ice isn't a secret and the NHL needs to put a stop to him and other repeat offenders.
This is the same guy who ended the career of one of the most gifted players in recent NHL history. Paul Kariya was forced sit out the entire 2010-11 season due to lingering concussion affects after Kaleta targeted his head with a vicious elbow. Kariya took the advice of doctors and retired from the game at 36. If not for the actions of Kaleta and other head shot artists, Kariya would still be playing today.
"The thing I worry about is that you'll get a guy who is playing with a concussion, and he gets hit, and he dies at centre ice," Kariya told the Globe and Mail in 2011.
On top of that, Kaleta has received suppelmental discipline on three headbutting/charging incidents in the past three years where he lowered his head and rammed opposing players in the head.
What needs to change is the behavior of players. There is a clear lack of respect between players. Rangers head coach John Tortorella is on the right side of the fence.
"It's probably one of the most dangerous hits I've ever seen," Tortorella said during his post-game press conference. "It's ridiculous. That's what I thought. I'm glad we made them pay (by winning the game.) It's disgusting. It's a lack of respect. Each team wants to beat the other team, but you have to respect what's going on on the ice."
Kaleta's teammates were in shock from what they saw from Kaleta, as Rangers' forward Brian Boyle screamed in the direction of the Sabres' bench. None of the Sabres' trash-talkers responded. They knew what they saw and they knew their teammate was in the wrong.
According to MSG's between the benches analyst John Giannone, former Dallas Stars teammate Steve Ott skated over to Richards and asked Richards, "You okay? That was scary."
Harry Zolnierczyk of the Philadelphia Flyers recently propelled himself into the air to charge Ottawa Senators' defenseman Mike Lundin. Yet, Zolniercyk only received a four-game suspension. It will be a shame if Kaletta receives a single-digit suspension, especially considering his history of suspensions and fines.
Fortunately for Richards, he isn't feel concussion-like effects. At least, not yet.
"I hit my head. I hit everything," Richards stated. "I don't know where to begin. So far, that's not an issue."
What steps can be taken to ensure player safety? Wel, the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) requires their players to wear jerseys with red stop signs patches on the back of their jerseys to discourage players from hitting each other from behind and curtailing boarding incidents. While NHLers have decades of experience under their belts, there are still notable players who have continued to step over the line throughout their careers by recklessly and gutlessly boarding opponents.
Would it look silly for a professional athlete to wear a red stop sign on the back of their jersey? Of course. Would it prevent players from hitting players in vulnerable positions? Certainly. Again, this is only one of many options the NHL could consider to curtail head shots and boarding incidents.
Other, more realistic options to cut down on head shots would be to introduce no-touch icing and bringing back the red line. Seeing a European-style no-touch icing introduced and two-line offside pass return would diminish the speed and ferocity of the game, but these are measures worth taking if the NHL wants to keep their players safe during their career and long after their careers come to an end.
Does the NHL need to take boarding and head shot incidents more seriously? How long would an appropriate ban be for repeat offender Kaleta? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.
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