What is needed is a rethink of NHL rules and the disciplinary process. They need to focus on safety by implementing rules that either changes the behaviour of the dangerous player, or drives them out of the game. Penalties that severely punish the team of the offender will also change the attitude of the general manger and roster decisions by the coach. Make it costly for a team to dress a less skilled player who constantly plays on the edge, or over it. Eliminate the need for revenge and, with a small change in the fighting major penalty, the need to drop the gloves will naturally be reduced.
The basic strategy outlined below is patterned on what the USHL introduced for the 2012-13 season. I’ve outlined their new process and highlighted comments from USHL executives in my post; Update on Fighting in Junior Hockey. Any additional suggestions are not new and I’m sure you have come across them in various articles or blogs in the past few years. I’ve tried to incorporate them into a disciplinary system that I believe will change behavior and make hockey a safer sport without fundamentally altering the game that we love.
- Checking from behind
- Illegal Check to the Head
- Working together, the NHL and NHLPA can communicate to fans, sponsors, advertisers and the sports media that they are serious about player safety. The image of the game will improve dramatically.
- A full 5 minute penalty for a dangerous penalty, like cross-checking or boarding, will hurt the offending team and the culprits will be thinking about their actions while opponents are scoring multiple times during the resulting power play.
- Including the coach in the intervention meetings, when players are called in to review their dangerous actions on the ice, communicates that both the team and the player are responsible for what occurs on the ice.
- Players that can hit cleanly, with the intent of separating the opponent from the puck versus his head from his body, will be prized under these rules. Those who are reckless and prone to vicious hits or stick fouls will become rare. Hitting will become more strategic and injuries will be reduced.
- An automatic game misconduct for fighting will very likely be the nail in the coffin for the goons who circle each other after an opening face-off or in the last few minutes of a blow-out.
- Smart teams will make better roster choices and end up taking advantage of teams that value intimidation in the form of violent and dangerous play. This will speed learning and adaptation of the new rules.
- When players experience officiating and suspensions that have real consequences; the motivation for revenge will be greatly reduced. Fighting will become unnecessary and rare.
This new approach to reducing injuries and fights can be implemented in stages, allowing players to adjust and ease concerns that the NHL is altering the game too rapidly. Dangerous penalties could start at 2 minutes with full time served. If the behaviour of players doesn’t change then increase it to 3 or 4 minutes. That incremental approach can be done by penalty type if the league is looking to reduce certain types of infractions. They can slowly ratchet down the dangerous penalty thresholds for suspensions and weed out those players who have no concern about injuring an opponent with reckless use of their stick or body.