Once you looked, you couldn’t unsee it. The tip of Marc Methot’s pinky finger was starring in a Saw movie, partially hacked off, oozing bright red blood. And, as if the injury didn’t attract enough attention, the man inflicting it was Sidney Crosby.
Methot’s finger “shattered,” as the Ottawa Senators reported it, on March 23 against the Pittsburgh Penguins when Crosby swung his stick at Methot’s, hoping to stop him from retrieving a loose puck. Crosby caught glove and finger instead of stick. A little more than a month later, with Crosby crashing the net in a playoff game against the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin swung his stick similarly. It knocked Crosby off balance, he fell forward, and he ate a cross-check to the head from Matt Niskanen. Crosby missed the next game with a concussion.
Add the 21-slash salute and broken finger that Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau received in a Nov. 15 game against the Minnesota Wild and those are three ugly, high-profile injuries caused by the same act. Crosby and Ovechkin received no penalties, and most of the chops on Gaudreau went undetected by officials. Talk to most high-ranking league execs and they’ll point out “plays like that happen a hundred times a game.” They sure do. But does that make it OK?
There’s a slashing epidemic in the game right now, and it’s the unintended consequence of a positive change the league made in 2005-06: stricter enforcement of obstruction.
“Because we cracked down on hooking, now the slashing has crept in, where it’s a quick strike, a quick tap of the stick,” said Damian Echevarrieta, the NHL’s vice-president of player safety. “If you catch the guy on the bottom of his glove on his underhand, he might get injured, but if that same slash with that same force goes on top of the glove, nothing’s going to happen, and there’s no injury, and no one even thinks about it.”
The league has to juggle protecting its players and understanding what’s realistic, as it’s impossible to take every kind of injury out of the game when players need some way to impede their opposition’s scoring attempts. Colin Campbell has a unique perspective on the matter. He was head of player safety during that initial obstruction crackdown. Now he’s the NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, which oversees the league’s officials, and he’s a non-voting member as co-chair of the competition committee. During committee discussions, he says, he likes to look at the stripped-down versions of the game, ball hockey and pond hockey, and use those as templates for fair NHL play.
“What’s accepted and what’s not accepted without a referee in those situations?” Campbell said. “You can hit a stick to get the puck off it. You can lift a stick. You can’t hook at a guy. You can’t slash his hand. Then he turns around and whacks you, punches you. So what’s allowed in the purest form of hockey? That’s what we always try to go back to. You’ve got to be able to check his stick, check a guy and somehow get the puck off him.”
Making wholesale changes, then, won’t be easy if the NHL wants to preserve hockey in its rawest form. Incidental contact with the hands and other body parts will still happen as long as players are allowed to use their sticks on other players’ sticks while battling for pucks. The department of player safety has even spoken to equipment manufacturers in hopes of reinforcing gloves so they protect against accidental slashes better, but safer, thicker gloves are also heavier gloves. That would increase the risk of head injuries every time players swing at each other during scrums, Echevarrieta said, fixing one problem and creating another.
Eliminating slashes would require a shift in how they’re enforced on the ice, like the league did with obstruction. It wouldn’t require altering the rulebook, Echevarrieta explains, as the rule for slashing already defines it strictly.
“It’s pretty black and white,” he said. “You can’t use your stick as a weapon. Any slash should be a penalty. There’s varying degrees on what should be a penalty and what should be a stick check.”
When the competition committee gathered in June to assess potential changes to the game for 2017-18, it painstakingly broke down four playoff games as case studies for slashing. Will changes to the enforcement of slashing come to pass, then? “Yes, we’re working on it,” Campbell said.
Added NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly via email: “It’s certainly a point of focus as we move forward.”
Ultimately, though, if the NHL wants to change the culture of casual slashing, it requires two things: (a) buy-in from the league’s GMs, who make recommendations on changes to the game; and, (b) a change in how officials enforce the existing rulebook on the front lines. For offenders such as Crosby, that would include a less lenient interpretation of rule 61.1, which states, “Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.”
But until that happens, expect the slashers to keep terrorizing fingers, thumbs and wrists across the league.
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