By Sean McCafferty aka 30ranfordfan

March 10, 2011. I’m going to mark this date on my calendar, as the one where I’ve now joined the chorus of fans wanting the NHL to rid itself of fighting. Still in a shocked state of mind over Zdeno Chara getting no suspension for breaking Max Pacioretty’s neck two nights earlier, my brain must have been working overtime to connect the dots. As much as I enjoy watching a good hockey fight, the NHL needs to eliminate them.

Don’t get me wrong. I typically attend 10-15 OHL games a year, and the site of two 17 year olds beating each other senseless usually gets me cheering harder than the goals do. I normally watch between 40 and 50 NHL games on TV a year, and have seen anywhere from 1 to 10 games live each year over the last decade. During that time I can think of just as many fights that really stick out in my mind, as I can goals, saves, or other great plays. I’ll label myself as a hypocrite right now – because I know until fights become a thing of the past, my behaviour probably won’t change.

Why? Because it’s impossible for the NHL to eliminate the rest of the nonsense until they do.

I know the arguments for the status quo. It’s a fast game, and accidents happen. You can’t expect players to react when they have only a matter of a few seconds (at most) to make a decision. There wasn’t any intent. It’s a tough game, and you need to man up. He should have done a better job protecting himself.

What a bunch of malarkey. A quick glance at TSN.CA’s list of current NHL injuries shows 17 players out with concussion, and two more out with “concussion like symptoms”. Without making too many assumptions, I suspect the 6 others out with ‘head’ injuries are also concussed, vertigo is likely concussion related, Daymond Langkow’s broken vertebrae / neck also likely came along with some concussion like symptoms. That’s just the current injuries, no mention of how many concussions players have recovered from this year. That doesn’t include the contractless Paul Karyia, who can’t play this year due to a concussion.

How can any sane person look at this, and insist nothing is wrong? Head injuries have reached epidemic proportions and the NHL needs to do something about it.

As I’ve seen more of drama around the Max Pacioretty incident unfold, I’ve actually become convinced that the NHL did get the call right. Based on the rule book’s criteria for levying a suspension, Chara is innocent. That doesn’t mean we should all shrug our shoulders, and cross our fingers that it doesn’t happen again. It means the rules need to change, so a hit like that results in an automatic suspension.

Like after the blind side hit that Matt Cooke laid on Marc Savard last year, the NHL has the power to act if it wants to. The first order of business needs to be to correct this travesty. Make sure players know that if they run another player into a turnbuckle they’ll get an unpaid vacation. A long one. One that eats up 10 to 20 percent of their season, and doesn’t distinguish the difference between regular season and playoff games.

Does anyone honestly believe this ‘hard hockey play’ would have happened if NHLers knew a 15 game ban was waiting for them, even if the player doesn’t miss a shift? If after a 15 game suspension that player knew the next time it would be 30, how likely do you think he’d be to reoffend?

But don’t stop there. While Pacioretty’s near death experience may be the most recent violent act the NHL did nothing about, it’s not even the most high profile one of the season. That honour would go to David Steckel, and the elbow that knocked the league’s best player for 27 games and counting.

Sidney Crosby was having one of the best seasons we’ve seen in decades, until a cheap shot put him on the shelf.

Use the word accident all you want. Maybe Steckel really had no idea he was about to make contact with Crosby’s head. Fact is, the “I didn’t mean to do it” excuse means that Steckel was careless. He wasn’t in control of his body, and his reckless actions resulted in an injury. The rule book should hold him accountable for that.

The NHL needs to go after head shots, and they need to be met with suspensions. Maybe a small one of 2 or 3 games to start, but the length would have to escalate with every following infraction. Every single time. Made contact with the other player’s head? That will be 5, the game, and a suspension. You’re a Super Star? Don’t care. It’s the playoffs? Still don’t care. The other guy didn’t miss a shift? That will still be 5, the game, and a suspension. If the punishment isn’t automatic, the current “it will never happen to me” mentality will remain. If the punishment isn’t written down, and made automatic, Colin Campbell (or whoever replaces him) will screw it up. Don’t let them.

There is no reason why this can’t be done. Telling players they can’t hit their opponents in the head does nothing to take away from their ability to hit them in the shoulder, the chest, or the hip. It doesn’t prevent them from separating another player from the puck. It doesn’t remove their ability to intimidate with punishing checks. It only removes the unnecessarily viscous hits, protecting players from themselves.

In the NHL’s circle of violence, this brings us right back to fighting.

There is no way anyone should be able to keep a straight face, while arguing for a ban on shoulder to head contact, yet support the notion that fists should be allowed fly. You can’t ban head shots, without getting rid of the fights. How could the NHL law makers tell players that a 5 minute major is appropriate for a punch, but a suspension is needed for a shoulder? They can’t, and they shouldn’t try. Remove them both.

If Sideny Crosby’s absence doesn’t tell us that concussions are a problem, 46 year old Bob Probert’s death should. Maybe the NHL need its own version of the Whitby Dunlops’ late defenceman Don Sanderson? Is an on-ice death what it will take to get the league’s attention? I hope it never comes to that, but I fear if the league continues down its current patch of ignorance, it’s inevitable.

I know the changes I’m asking for are drastic. I know this will force many player to change how they play. It will end the careers of many, because the elimination of fights would render players like George Parros, Derek Boogaard, and Colton Orr useless.

Today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger. Modern equipment is capable of inflicting as much damage as it prevents . Hockey has evolved, and the rules need to catch up. I just hope we don’t lose too many more players before it finally happens.