By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — I think we would all agree Marian Gaborik is a good guy.
But that’s not the point.
The NHL’s failure to suspend the Rangers’ star forward following his vicious hit that sent the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen into momentary darkness last week screams of the league’s clear lack of a stance on hits from behind. It also reeks of selective prosecution, or, in this case, how certain players get “get out of jail” free cards.
The league will tell you it is 100 percent against these types of hits and is putting its foot down, but the reality of its actions of late speaks to something else: the NHL, it appears, will certainly suspend you if you deck someone illegally, but only if you have a reputation as someone who has tendencies or has mounted a movement in support of playing outside the rulebook. I can make this claim because the hit on Nielsen more than fell into the parameters of precisely what the league has said it is trying to eliminate.
It’s hard not to come to this conclusion. Again, I don’t think Gaborik meant to face-plant Nielsen into the boards. Really nothing in his career would suggest Gaborik is a cheap shot artist or even plays with a questionable edge, but the NHL — or more specifically Colin Campbell, the league’s dean of discipline — chose to wash its hands of the situation. It missed a gigantic opportunity to slam its fist down on the table and say enough is enough.
In reality, suspensions are the only way to get the message out there short of banning hitting from behind entirely, which would be next to impossible considering the way hockey is played. However, when someone is in a defenseless position and is crushed into the glass or boards the NHL should have no choice but to penalize and then move toward suspending the perpetrator — depending on the severity of the offense. I don’t think it’s possible to objectively look at the Gaborik hit and determine it wasn’t vicious enough to warrant a ban. The league’s own actions in this regard this season seem to suggest a suspension was warranted, but for whatever reason Gaborik walked away without even a reprimand.
I’m an old school hockey guy. I support the notion of fighting as a strategy and as a way of extracting a pound of flesh, because it is acceptable with penalty within the framework of the rules as they have been penned by the NHL. Further, I have no problem with guys getting banned for many games when things get out of hand, as they did in the Islanders-Penguins battle royal a few months ago.
But when it comes to stick fouls and hits from behind on defenseless players I have a real problem with this gray area the NHL ventures into when it comes to doling out discipline. In the case of Gaborik it was almost as if the NHL was more concerned with hurting the Rangers’ chances of making the playoffs than it was of enforcing its own rules and operating along the lines of its own mandate on blindside hits. It feels like the NHL really needs a New York area team in the playoffs for revenue and exposure. The Devils don’t really count, right? Same with the Islanders. But the league’s inaction seem to suggest it will be missing out on the cash cow if the Rangers aren’t given every opportunity to play in the tournament for the Stanley Cup. In this case that means having their most talented player on the ice during the season’s final weeks.
It also seems like because Gaborik is not Trevor Gillies or Matt Cooke or, to a lesser extent, Zdeno Chara, the league didn’t have to act. Maybe because the Nassau County Police Department wasn’t called in to investigate the league could — and did — sweep the incident under the rug.
It’s wrong. It sends a terrible message. If big name players, even Lady Byng Trophy candidates, get out of line they must be made examples of. It’s really the only way to get the message across that hits from behind will not be tolerated and that each and every last NHL player must be held responsible for his body’s actions, regardless if there was or was no intent. The NHL had no problem throwing the book at Gillies the second time and Cooke because they are considered “thugs.” But Gaborik, a guy with 18 penalty minutes this season and all the skills, got a pass. This is no way to get the message out, no way whatsoever.
When enough people complained about clutching and grabbing the NHL stepped up and ordered referees to call everything. The days of holding and interference were quickly squelched. It was a positive for the league. Scoring chances increased and more power plays were awarded. More goals leads to more buzz, which leads to possibly more national exposure and advertising revenue. Yet when asked to help protect its players, the NHL seems to check a guy’s rap sheet first and then flip a coin. Maybe we all need to scream louder. That or someone needs to be paralyzed or, worse, killed on the ice playing a game for anything substantial to be done.
Nielsen has not played since getting blindsided. His concussion will likely keep him out of the Islanders’ final three games. Gaborik, on the other hand, had an assist in the Rangers’ must-win 3-2 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday. Odds are he will have some say in whether or not the Blue Shirts, currently eighth in the East, hold on to a playoff spot.
Where’s the justice? Don’t ask the NHL. Its inconsistency suggests it’s not interested in getting things right.
The “I didn’t mean to” rationale rarely works in a court of law. It didn’t work with Gaborik either — because the league didn’t even require him to attend a hearing. The play was reviewed. There wasn’t even a conference call.
Does this sound like a league in crack-down mode to you?
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
Do you think the NHL was wrong not to suspend Gaborik? Do you think the league is inconsistent with its discipline? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.