After Michael Liambas was suspended for life for what many considered simply too hard a hit on Ben Fanelli – who, many also feel, put himself in a vulnerable position by turning at the last moment – there really is no choice but to dole out the same penalties to both Cormier and Kassian when the leagues make a decision after Wednesday’s Top Prospects Game. Anything else would reek of a double standard.
The fact Cormier was the 54th overall pick in the 2008 draft and Kassian was No. 13 last year should not come into play. Both are repeat offenders and, at least in the Kassian case, the Liambas precedent will be the measuring stick.
One OHL insider called Liambas’ ban an “overreaction” and a “terrible precedent” that has “come back to haunt the CHL.” Haunt because now, considering the CHL needs a cross-country standard, there is little the QMJHL and OHL can do other than ban both star players, not that they don’t deserve it.
Liambas’ hit was violent and reckless, but it was a hockey play. Cormier and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Kassian cannot defend themselves as trying to make hockey plays; what they did had little to do with the game.
Cormier’s Team Canada linemate at the world juniors, Stefan Della Rovere of the OHL’s Barrie Colts, was on TSN Monday night and said he had talked with Cormier, whose account of the incident in Della Rovere’s words was: “the guy (Mikael Tam) got out of his (Cormier’s) way, but the elbow did get up.”
Considering the pre-mediated look of Cormier’s hit, his demeanor while Tam was convulsing on the ice – seemingly unconcerned, arguing with the referees – and his apparent pooh-poohing of his actions, Cormier deserves everything that’s coming to him.
Kassian, now a three-time loser when it comes to suspendable offences and who too often plays on the wrong side of the edge, also deserves his comeuppance.
But there are bigger things at play here than just the fate of two NHL prospects; there are philosophical questions about the direction game play has gone.
With bigger, stronger, faster and better-protected athletes and rules that favor forecheckers and speed, the game is more dangerous than ever. As one colleague around the THN campus pointed out: You put 10 guys on the ice and allow them to play really, really fast, some bad things are bound to happen.
He is, of course, right. But those bad things are unavoidable. The avoidable ones – like the Cormier and Kassian incidents – are of a different breed.
Sherry Bassin is a long-time OHL executive and the current GM and governor of the Erie Otters, the team Liambas played for this season. He was on Toronto’s Fan 590 radio station Monday night and, in effect, said the people teaching the game need to take a step back and examine what they’re doing.
Bassin is colorful and cantankerous, the kind of guy who likes to harken back to ‘the good old days’ or whenever. He’s grandfatherly. And Bassin did talk about the old days, but he raised two points worth discussing: the lack of respect young players seem to have for each other these days and the ‘first man in’ coaching style that has permeated the game for decades. In my mind, the former is a function of the latter.
To paraphrase, Bassin asked: What ever happened to playing the puck first and the man second? Playing the man as a means of getting the puck.
Because now it’s hammer time; open season. Skate as fast as possible and hit the guy as hard as possible, so that your teammate can get the puck. And that, I think, is something worth examining more.
As the OHL insider said when asked if lifetime suspensions are a deterrent: “It won’t matter what they do. No one is going to change.”
But if Bassin’s point is taken seriously and the coaching fraternity takes a long, hard look at itself and what it teaches, maybe deterrents won’t be needed. Maybe players will change. They just need to be coached differently.
It’s a pipe dream, I’m sure. And a lot harder to do than it is to write about – I get that. But something needs to be done before a player is killed on the ice. And believe me folks: that’s the direction we’re heading in.
As Bassin said, it’s a shame hockey always reacts to tragic incidents and big suspensions, rather than being pro-active. But any positive reaction is better than nothing. Let’s hope every avenue – including coaching – is examined in an effort to increase player safety.
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