Another day, another suspension for ice hockey player Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals. The right winger and fan-determined enforcer has already been called by the Department of Player Safety(link to something explaining the DOPS) twice and handed two separate suspensions and a fine for interference and boarding. Joining him this week with a suspension is (forward or defenseman) Andrew Desjardins of the New York Rangers and (forward or defenseman) Robert Bortuzzo of the St. Louis Blues with a fine. This comes after news that the NHL would be cracking down on slashing and other violations this season.
Like most decisions made by the NHL, some of the suspensions seem questionable due to the league’s hypocrisy. While it is great that management is emphasizing the importance of player safety this season by being sure to penalize dirty hits, there is an underlying problem in the league of double standards benefitting its star players. The NHL's frequent suspensions for other players seem to be overcompensation for its lack of action when there is a risk of a popular player facing suspension.
This is often the case with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first line center, Sidney Crosby. The three-time Stanley Cup winner and captain is a fan favorite and arguably the public face of the NHL. Because of this, Crosby has not only benefitted from the league’s double standards, but has also suffered from them.
Crosby is often able to get away with dirty hits due to his reputation and stardom in the NHL, as exemplified in last season's Stanley Cup Finals against the Nashville Predators. Crosby faced criticism after dragging defenseman P.K. Subban to the ground and repeatedly slamming his head into the ice. However, the referees and linesmen did not deem this illegal act a penalty, and instead gave Subban and Crosby matching penalties for holding. If the NHL truly cared about the safety of its players, it would show more concern over actions that put a player at the risk of a concussion and call the game accordingly. It should not look the other way because of the player’s popularity in the NHL.
On the other hand, Crosby has been on the receiving end of bad blows to the head himself, and has received several concussions during his career. Having already missed over 100 games due to concussions, fans have growing concerns about him continuing to play after hits to his head.
For instance, in the Penguins’ second round playoff series against the Washington Capitals last year, Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion in game three after Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen accidentally cross-checked him in the head. Only a week later, Crosby played in game seven against the Capitals and again hit his head against the boards. A bad hit to the head so soon after a diagnosed concussion seemed like it would be an issue for the team, but Crosby continued to play without having a medical check. The lack of concern here is another example of the NHL being irresponsible with players’ safety. Disregarding potential injury so that a good player can continue to play is unacceptable. No game is worth the potential long-term brain damage so often occurring with contact sports.
The team was able to get away with letting Crosby play despite the risks because of the NHL's approach to concussions. The recent update (say who updated it, like what governing body and who in the nhl is in charge of that) to the protocol for concussions states: “While it remains an individual Club's responsibility to identify a Player who requires removal from play and evaluation for possible concussion, the NHL and the NHLPA have agreed to provide additional support to help identify Players who require evaluation under the NHL/NHLPA Concussion Protocol.”
While this update is a step forward, it is still flawed in that it gives the team the final say in whether a player goes back into the game or not. Teams care about their players, but they also care about winning. This conflict of interest could lead to wrong decisions and devastating consequences.
Further, the NHL’s commissioner Gary Bettman denies that there is a correlation between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and concussions. Bettman neglects to consider the recent studies about the long-term effects of concussions and the development of CTE. He would rather ignore the medical revelations in order to not change the game. He prioritizes giving fans the entertainment that he thinks they want to see over the safety of the players.
No matter how many penalties or suspensions it gives out, the NHL will not be able to prioritize player safety until it addresses the underlying issues. The current effort that the league is putting forth is all for show as long as it continues to risk players’ safety in order to keep the game the way it has been, despite the new research that has come out regarding concussions. In order for real changes to happen in the NHL, the league must address its double standards and its ignorance of the long-term effects of concussions.