Niskanen: The laughable suspension that is an indictment of the entire NHL…

Let’s be clear: I said before that George Parros should be suspended, but the laughable one-game suspension handed to Matt Niskanen for the vicious crosscheck that broke Brendan Gallagher’s jaw is bigger than that.

It’s a league-wide failure. A failure that has been going on for decades. A failure to meet on-ice violence with penalties sufficient to deter future on-ice violence.

It is not a hockey play, as Alain Vigneault tried to say in the wake of yet another incident that has blemished the league’s reputation and once again called into question the NHL’s determination to make the game safer for its players and to put the goon tactics behind for once and for all.

This is on Gary Bettman. It’s on Bill Daly. It’s on the Board of Governors. It is especially on the head of the egregious Colin Campbell, who somehow still has a job. And, yes, it’s on Parros and his entire team in the Department of Player Safety.

It’s on the on-ice officials, who once again failed to deal with it on the spot – when it’s most effective. Instead, the same crew that threw the book at Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the same game looked the other way when the offence involved Niskanen on Gallagher. 

And it’s wrong.

No matter how many times you watch that hit, it’s sickening. It was a completely unprovoked attack and it could have been worse. A little lower and Niskanen might have shattered Gallagher’s larynx, and we might have had another Trent McCleary situation on our hands. 

This one was so bad that Jeff O’Neill, the guy who might as well wear his Leafs jersey in the studio, that Jeff O’Neill said that the Niskanen hit should have drawn a three-game suspension at a minimum. When it’s so bad that even the Leafs cheerleaders are siding with the Canadiens, it’s bad.

It was so bad that even Brian Burke (whose son Patrick was presumably part of this farce) said himself that Niskanen should have gotten at least three games.

This one was also on the NHL’s coaching fraternity. Vigneault may be one of the classiest guys in the business, but his attempts to make light of the situation were not classy at all, as Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin made clear yesterday.

“Gallagher will be eating his meals through a straw,” Bergevin said – adding that he wouldn’t wish that on anyone, including the Philadelphia players.

The crosscheck that injured Gallagher was deliberate, and it was hard. You don’t drop Brendan Gallagher with a friendly tap on the top of the helmet.

Niskanen is no saint. He has also been guilty of a stick to the face of one other than Sidney Crosby. I think we can all agree that sticks and skates are dangerous, and that if you’re not going to police Niskanen’s stick, or Matthew Tkachuk’s skate, then you have no reason to exist. 

Rather than making it clear that such deliberate attempts to injure will not be tolerated, the message that was delivered was quite the opposite. Not only was the suspension absurd, it was inconsistent – part of a league that is consistently inconsistent. Nazem Kadri (himself not the most delightful little angel in the league) got five games for a crosscheck that was similar to  Niskanen’s. Kadri had been getting away with stuff for years and his suspension was long overdue but when you see the two replays back-to-back, if Kadri got five games, then Niskanen should have drawn at least that many.

 At some point, the fans have to let their feelings be known and it has to go beyond approving a suspension when your guy is the victim and complaining when he’s the aggressor. Never mind fairness to Gallagher, the smiling warrior who takes a beating and keeps on ticking. Or to the Canadiens, who are now faced with the task of winning two games against the top seed in the Eastern Conference without the player who is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the team.

This isn’t about one player, or one team, or one playoff series. It’s about putting an end to the unnecessary violence – to the garbage you see from the Tkachuk brothers as well as Niskanen and a dozen others. 

It’s about Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore, it’s about Wayne Maki’s violent, stick-swinging battle with Ted Green that left Green with a fractured skull and a brain injury, it’s about Rick Jodzio hitting Marc Tardif in the back of the head and then delivering more hits while Tardif lay helpless on the ice. It’s about Scott Stevens and the blindside hit that destroyed Paul Kariya.

It’s about the twilight world of concussions and the effects that can endure for decades and lead to permanent disability or death. It’s about Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres and all the cheapshot artists who made a very good living on the wrong side of the line – and it’s about how to stop them once and for all.  

The game is dangerous enough – sticks, pucks, skates, boards, shoulder pads, glass, goalposts. There are probably a million ways you can get injured that don’t involve deliberate, unnecessary violence.

The Department of Player Safety is supposed to be about deterrence. About simultaneously cleaning up the league’s image and making it less likely that players are going to suffer debilitating injuries through the negligence or sheer aggression of their NHLPA brethren.

The one-game suspension to Niskanen accomplishes none of that. If anything, it declares that the playoffs are open season on head hunting, that anything goes, that the slap on the wrist is the order of the day and that if there is to be a deterrent, the players are going to have to deliver it themselves.

You would not want to be Claude Giroux or Jakub Voracek if the Canadiens find themselves behind late in tonight’s Game 6 and with nothing to lose. If the league won’t deliver the message, then the players will – and you get a descending spiral of violence and retribution which is precisely what player safety is supposed to prevent.

This is where we came in. Late in the 1998 season, I covered a Canadiens road trip to Washington and New York. During the game against the Capitals, Saku Koivu was in behind the net when a late-season Washington call-up went in behind the net and brought a vicious, two-handed chop down on the back of Koivu’s glove.

The shot happened to catch a spot where there was no padding, and Koivu – the most hard-luck player in the history of the CH – suffered a broken hand. During the next game, in New York against the Rangers, I happened to be sitting in the auxiliary press area next to Brian Burke, whose job it was to police such incidents and hand out suspensions.

We spent the better part of a period arguing about the slash to Koivu. Burke laughed it off, insisting that it was a hockey play, just one of those things, blah, blah, blah. I argued that it was a deliberate and dangerous act on the part of a borderline player and that it had cost the Canadiens the services of their captain on the eve of the playoffs.

Burke was unmoved. The playoffs began and the Canadiens managed to get by the Pittsburgh Penguins with Koivu joining them late in the series. But he was ineffective against Pittsburgh, and he still hadn’t really recovered the use of the hand when the Canadiens were swept in the second round by Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres.

Burke’s serene disregard for the safety of the players on the ice then is reflected by his son’s attitude now, and by Parros and everyone else involved. I read an interview with Patrick Burke in which he was so cavalier about the criticism of the department that it was like sitting in that pressbox listening to Brian all over again.

Such attitudes are deeply ingrained in the good-old-boys network that still runs the NHL. The fact that Colin Campbell still has a job, years after the revelation of the egregious emails that should have gotten him fired, tells you all you need to know.

It means that Chris Lee (an official who is either biased or incompetent or both) can be assigned to work two games involving the Canadiens in a single playoff series. It means that the Toronto war room can be run by former Leafs coach Mike Murphy and that same war room can sign off on the absurd five-minute major and game misconduct handed to Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The NHL is a league that has refused to grow up. While the NBA strikes out boldly into the 21st century, the NHL is still as stiff-necked and retrograde as it was when Clarence Campbell was touching off the Richard Riot.

I had high hopes for George Parros. I was impressed by the man during his short stint with the Canadiens. Like many of the league’s tough guys, Parros is a thoughtful, educated man. But his stint as Director of Player Safety has been a disaster and the Niskanen suspension may be the worst decision yet.

It’s high time the NHL cleaned house, from Colin Campbell on down. Either have a Department of Player Safety that actually cares enough to do something about player safety – or disband it altogether and we’ll go back to letting the players take care of it themselves.

And we know how that turned out.

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