Regardless of what the GMs decide to recommend when it comes to head shots, it would be a knee-jerk reaction of the highest order if the NHL decided to suspend Matt Cooke for his head shot on Marc Savard Sunday. In fact, it would be almost as ridiculous as suspending Sean Avery for having a potty mouth last season.
You might be surprised this corner would advocate a non-suspension for an act as despicable as Cooke’s, but the fact of the matter is if Mike Richards’ hit on David Booth earlier this season did not warrant a suspension, neither does Cooke’s hit on Savard.
Was the hit dirty? Of course it was. Was it a blatant head shot? Absolutely. Is Cooke known for this kind of thing and is he a repeat offender when it comes to supplemental discipline by the NHL? No question, but what exactly was his offense? He was finishing his check the way his coach, Dan Bylsma, and 29 other coaches around the NHL would insist he do and the last time we checked, a shoulder hit to the head wasn’t an illegal act as of yet.
That kind of hit, if there’s any sanity in the relationship between the NHL and its players, will be punishable with a hefty suspension by the time the puck drops next season, but when Cooke applied the hit, he wasn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done and gone unpunished a number of times in the past.
To be sure, players have been suspended for applying blows to the head, but show me where a player in the NHL has been suspended for a shoulder hit to the head on a perceived hockey play. There have been players suspended for head shots after getting their elbows up, for boarding, charging and late hits, but never has a player been sent to the sidelines for a shoulder hit.
(And just so you know, the Cooke hit shouldn’t be ruled a late hit if past precedents are applied. If you watch the tape, you’ll see Savard takes a wrist shot from the high slot and the hit by Cooke is applied before the puck even reaches the Pittsburgh net.)
Just because this hit is now Exhibit A when it comes to the kinds of hits everyone in the game wants to eliminate does not mean Cooke deserves to be suspended for having incredibly bad timing.
A lot of people have made mention of the fact Cooke is a repeat offender, which he is. But here is the most important distinction to be made when it comes to taking his past into account: In the legal system, and the NHL’s system of justice, being a repeat offender only carries credence when you’re applying the sentence, not when you’re trying to determine guilt or innocence. The fact Cooke has been suspended for everything from elbows to the head to knee-on-knee collisions should have absolutely no bearing on deciding whether or not his hit on Savard was legal or illegal. The NHL must make a decision on the evidence it has provided by video replay and that alone.
And this is where NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell must walk a fine line. If he suspends Cooke for his hit on Savard, what can he say to Booth, whose concussion was much more severe and almost certainly cost him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team? (For the record, Campbell was not involved in the decision on the Richards hit because Booth plays for the Florida Panthers, the same team that employs Campbell’s son Gregory.)
If the NHL wants to blame anyone for what happened to Savard, nobody is more culpable than the league itself. That’s because it is the NHL that has fostered this culture of violence and, until now, done absolutely nothing to curtail it. That may change and we all hope it does soon, but Cooke should not be made a sacrificial lamb just because his hit came the day before the GM meetings.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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