We shouldn’t be the least bit surprised the NHL chose not to discipline Keith Ballard for nearly taking his own goaltender’s head off, given its general proclivity for being ridiculously lenient on players who attempt to take their opponents’ heads off.
Hey, the guy feels badly enough already, right? And we can all have a good chuckle about it now, so let’s just leave it alone and move on.
Besides, how embarrassing would it be for the league to suspend a player for hitting his own teammate with a baseball swing? Well, not nearly as much as it should be for doing absolutely nothing.
Let’s just change this scenario a little bit. Let’s suppose that after scoring to make it 2-0 Monday night, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers was picking himself up in the Florida Panthers crease. Let’s just say for argument’s sake, that he was the one who took Ballard’s stick to the side of his head and had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher.
We all know what would have happened then. The league would have come down on Ballard with all its fury. He would have received a long suspension and a substantial fine and the league would have gone to great pains to point out that while the hit wasn’t malicious, that kind of behavior is unacceptable.
It would have been considered a reckless, stupid play that would have been avoided had the player been able to better control his emotions. It would have pointed to the fact that Ballard swung his stick a second time after hitting Kovalchuk’s head to show that Ballard had no regard for the consequences of his actions.
So why, then, should it make any difference that Ballard hit his own goalie instead of a player on the other team? It remains a reckless, stupid play borne of an inability to show some sense of self-control. The only thing that made it acceptable was the fact he hit his own player and that his sense of embarrassment and guilt, not to mention the fact he is the subject of ridicule around the league, should be punishment enough.
Well, it’s not. Of course Ballard had no ill intent toward anything but the goalpost when he swung his stick. These guys never “intend” to hurt anybody when they do these things. But how often do we hear that as an excuse for the things players do on the ice? Personally, I’m getting a little tired of hearing, “Gee, you hate to see a guy get carried off on a stretcher, but…”
The fact is, these kinds of “accidents” occur in hockey far more than they do in any other professional sport and too often they are overlooked because of the age-old excuse that players are reacting to an ultra-competitive situation and that will always be one of the hazards of the game.
Well, that’s hooey on so many fronts. First, it’s a lame-ass excuse any way you look at it. Second, it supports the notion that hockey is somehow more competitive and more intense than other sports. And there are people out there who really believe that. Why else would players get off so lightly when they do these things?
Once again, it comes down to the culture of violence that surrounds the game and the level of acceptance that hockey allows when it comes to these kinds of things. Does a pitcher react to a home run by drilling the ball at nobody in particular? Does a football player throw his helmet into the crowd when a touchdown is scored against his team?
No, but you see hockey players constantly breaking their sticks over the net or against the boards when their team is scored upon and everyone seems to view it as acceptable behavior. Even the Panthers don’t plan to do anything internally about it.
Well, the NHL has once again blown an opportunity to make a statement here. This incident could have very well had tragic consequences. And for a league that is as litigious as the NHL, it’s shocking one of the lawyers in the league’s head office didn’t contemplate just how much liability the league might have had to bear had the situation not turned out so well.
And because it chose to do nothing, everyone might not be quite as lucky the next time something like this happens.
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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