I image that you are a hockey fan, yes? Of course you are. And a very intelligent and discerning hockey fan at that. Also probably attractive. And, as an intelligent and attractive hockey fan, you are no doubt well-informed as to the issues and events of the day, which means that you are certainly aware of the fact that in the final moments of the first playoff game between the Wings and the Preds, Shea Weber grabbed Henrik Zetterberg by the head and slammed said head emphatically against the glass. You have probably seen this several times. Hell, you’ve probably written something about it yourself. So I won’t trouble you with a dramatic retelling of the tale, but rather move immediately to my first point, which is as follows:
That was not a hockey play. Nope, not at all, not even a little bit, not in any way shape form color or function. It was a WWE play, or a high-school-hallway-girl-fight play, or a how-dare-you-bring-me-an-overripe-cantaloupe play. It was a gesture of rage and retaliation with no tactical or strategic content whatsoever.
One might think that, because it was a hit to the head with no hockey purpose, this would be an easy call for the NHL. One might thing this would be the easiest one-or-two game Shanaban that was ever Shanabanned. I mean, we’ve been talking about this shit all year, haven’t we? Concussions, CTE, degenerative brain damage- we’re concerned about these things, aren’t we? We’re trying to get unnecessary and avoidable hits to the head out of hockey! We’re trying to inculcate a new discipline of tactical violence that prioritizes brain safety! To hear anyone in the hockey world talk over the past year, one would think that the concussion issue is the single greatest challenge facing the sport in our generation. That it is the one problem about which we absolutely must DO SOMETHING.
Which is why, quite understandably, there was a lot of fan and media outrage when the NHL did nothing. Weber got the token fine allowed under the CBA- $2500, or as young hockey superstars think of it, couch-change. Shea Weber will be able to pay this fine by going through his laundry hamper. Now, as a fan, this is outrageous, not only because it reveals a casual disregard for injurious plays that don’t actually injure but also because it seems to make a mockery of all this supposed concern about brains. We’ve been told, again and again, that we need to adjust our understanding of a good and legal hit in order to reflect the new medical knowledge about concussion dangers. We’ve been told that a lot of the huge collisions we used to love are going to have to go, for the safety of the players. We’ve been asked to sacrifice a part of the strategic game we used to enjoy, to accept that our favorite guys are going to get sent to the press box for the kind of hits that would have gotten them on the highlight reels only a few scant years ago. Most of us have accepted this- some reluctantly and some enthusiastically, but almost everyone one way or another. And now, suddenly, a guy gets a pass on an obviously brain-endangering action that wasn’t even a reasonable hockey play? It’s so inconsistent it borders on the insulting.
Nevertheless, I understand the NHL’s reasoning on this issue. The League, inconsistent as it may be, generally draws it’s logic from traditional hockey values, and there is a traditional hockey value that states, “Officiating should not dictate the outcome of games.” Both the League’s reluctance to punish star players and the contraction of disciplinary actions in the playoffs are derived from this principle. The NHL would vastly rather have an outcome derive from a non-call than a call, and consequently the League tends to lighten up on both in-game and post-game punishments in the postseason, when any and every penalty, misconduct, or suspension might decisively impact the result of a series. Moreover, it is no small thing to deprive a team of a star during the playoffs. Taking Weber away from Nashville would skew the results of the remaining games, particularly given that Zetterberg was not hurt and will play. The League made a decision to put the competitive balance of the game on the ice ahead of legalistic consistency and message-sending. This is not an unreasonable choice for the League to make. It is a valid argument.
Or it would have been a generation ago. Now- fortunately or not- the NHL can’t afford to abide by the traditional custom of keeping officiating and supplementary discipline from affecting outcomes. The shifting medical knowledge and standards of treatment are going to force supplementary discipline to become a major factor in determining the outcome of playoff hockey, sooner or later. It would be better for the sport if it happens sooner. Like, this year.
The problem is that the playoffs create a disturbingly powerful incentive to injure. There is, of course, always an incentive to injure in hockey- every significant roster player on the IR forces a weaker player to step up which often (although not always) weakens the squad. Damaging one’s opponents benefits onesself. However, in the regular season, this incentive is rather weak. Even teams in the same division only play each other a few times, often at widely-separated intervals. An injured player could easily be back in the line-up by the next time the teams see each other, and anyway, by injuring one of their guys, you’re also benefiting all the other teams that play them. So during the regular season there’s plenty of incentive to slow down/intimidate/knock around the opposition within the game at hand, but no great advantage to be had by doing them major damage that lasts beyond. Normal deterrents- minor penalties, score effects, “the Code”- have some leverage over player behavior in the regular season (although, obviously, they do break down, particularly in the case of 4th-liners who stand to gain from a little notoriety).
But in the playoffs, when two teams see nothing but each other for seven consecutive games with the Stanley Cup on the line, there is a massive incentive to cripple opponents. Take out a good player on the other team early in the series and your chances of surviving to see the next round go up significantly. Things like honor, respect, and two-minute-minors mean very little to a group of intensely competitive men in the hunt for a championship. That amoral intensity is exactly what makes playoff hockey so awesome, but it also makes it incredibly dangerous. Any opportunity to cripple an opponent with relative impunity will be taken, and it will be cheered. That’s hockey.
It has always been this way. Ever since there has been hockey, players have been slashing, spearing, charging, kneeing, slew-footing and head-hitting their way to the Cup. Fighting goes down because goons don’t play and penalties go down because the League gets gun-shy, but the postseason is nevertheless a filthy dirty business. The cliché says that playoffs are a war of attrition. This may be the only hockey cliché that is completely true.
Historically, the counterbalance to the incentive to injure is playing through injury. That’s the tradeoff- guys try to murder each other and then keep playing while half-dead. Bob Baun famously scored the Cup-winning goal in 1964 while playing on a broken ankle. Every season, as soon as the prize is won, the stories come out of guys grinding through the last few games on broken, frozen limbs. They play beyond the point of sanity and reason, risking breaks on top of breaks, knowing that when it’s all over they have a few months to nurse their wounds in order to come back strong in September. In the cycle of hockey life, spring has always been the season of dying, autumn the time of rebirth.
So, in old-time hockey, intent to injure was mitigated by the knowledge that injuring an opponent didn’t necessarily mean getting him out of the game. When it comes to some kinds of injuries, various types of limb-breaks and pulls and strains, this custom can still be observed. But concussions are, in this respect as in so many others, a game-changer. Concussions can’t be messed around with- try to play through a one and you risk second-impact syndrome, which implies far more dire consequences: long, uncertain recovery periods, terrible and irregular physical and emotional symptoms, possibly the end of a career. Concussion protocols demand that a player sit unless he is certainly and fully cleared, and neither the NHL nor it’s member teams nor its player nor its fan bases can afford to take this demand lightly.
This means that, for any unscrupulous team or player- and you know they exist, don’t you dare tell me they don’t exist- looking to get an edge in a playoff series, a hit to the head of an opposing star is a brilliant strategy. Even the spectre of a concussion will be enough to get him off the ice for several games. He won’t play through it- or, if he does, he’s extremely vulnerable and will either be contact-shy or readily re-breakable. Everything we know now about concussions makes it far easier for us to treat them and identify them early, but it also makes them an attractive tactic to win in the postseason.
Given that players can’t play through concussions and that traditional ethics and penalties mean nothing compared to the Cup, supplementary discipline is just about the only thing the NHL can do to preempt concussive behavior during the postseason. There are literally no other options. If teams recognize that the NHL’s ethic of non-interference in outcomes is so powerful that they won’t suspend a star player for any sort of head-hit, even one as egregiously stupid and indefensible as Weber’s, there is nothing to counterbalance the incentive to injure. There is no possible deterrent.
I’m ambivalent about the rise of supplementary, video-reviewed discipline in hockey. Hockey’s punitive tradition is based on the idea of the minor penalty and the trade-off between violent misbehavior and strategic disadvantage. It’s part of what makes hockey distinctively itself, and whenever possible it is better for punishment strategies to be incorporated into the framework of the game on the ice. Over the long run, hockey people need to have a serious discussion about what the role of ex-post-facto disciplinary review should be in the game, because over time it will have serious consequences for the way the game is played, and I’m not sure anyone has really thought those consequences through yet.
However, right now, given the struggles over player safety in contemporary hockey, supplementary discipline has to play a major role in the postseason, even when it changes outcomes. Because concussions are the single biggest challenge facing the sport in our generation, and if the League doesn’t take them seriously, we’re never going to get to have other conversations about discipline and punishment and behavior modification. The sport is never going to get past this thing until its preeminent professional league deals with it effectively, and this non-call is a major step backwards in dealing with it effectively. They say Zetterberg is fine, but then again, they’ve said a lot of guys were fine who were far from. What if three days from now we hear reports that he’s having headaches and orientation problems? What if he gets hit again, something apparently small and innocuous, and starts suffering nausea and vertigo? What happens to the competitive integrity of the series then? Zetterberg’s good fortune delayed the moment of reckoning but it is coming nevertheless. Eventually, either supplementary discipline is going to start dictating some playoff outcomes or concussions will. Personally, I’d much rather the former.