Flyers keep the illegal hits coming

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is nothing I despise more than having to chime in with my thoughts concerning the latest hockey suspensions. But, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the subject as long as the Philadelphia Flyers keep delivering illegal hits.

Philadelphia has received plenty of accolades for rebounding from last year's terrible season with a much-improved team this year, but the Flyers have also had an unfortunate knack for making headlines with violent play.

To be fair, the Flyers haven't been involved in every suspension this season, just the majority. Six players have been suspended by the league for on-ice infractions this season, and four of them have worn Orange & Black sweaters.

The latest incident involved Flyers forward Scott Hartnell, who was suspended two games for delivering an elbow to the head of Boston's Andrew Alberts on November 26.

The last two suspensions handed out to the Flyers have each been for only two games, which is surprising considering the dubious reputation Philadelphia has gained this season.

After all, the first two suspensions for Philadelphia this year were for absolutely deplorable incidents. First, rookie Steve Downie was suspended 20 games for delivering a leaping, shoulder-first hit to Ottawa's Dean McAmmond in a preseason game. Jesse Boulerice then was handed a 25-game penalty for cross-checking Vancouver's Ryan Kesler in the neck.

Scott Hartnell
Scott Hartnell was the latest Flyer suspended for his actions.

Downie is eligible to return this Saturday against Dallas, while Boulerice is out until December 27.

The other suspension levied against Philadelphia stemmed from a hit on Boston's Patrice Bergeron on October 27. Flyers defenseman Randy Jones' checked Bergeron into the boards from behind, and the Bruins young star has yet to return to the ice. However, many hockey experts and players have come to Jones' defense, saying that Bergeron, who suffered a concussion and broken nose, put himself in a dangerous position by stopping short of the boards and leaning forward.

Naturally, the Flyers' brass has spoken out against the violent infractions, but the organization's players have yet to get the message. Jones and Hartnell's incidents were certainly not as bad as those of Downie and Boulerice, but shouldn't the suspensions have been longer because of Philadelphia's history this season?

Perhaps the league needs to levy fines against franchises who have multiple players suspended for illegal hits. That's not to say that the Flyers are necessarily at fault. After all, the players are fully-grown adults who should be responsible for their own actions. Still, it's possible that a team fine could deter NHL clubs from signing players who have a history of violent behavior.

At the same time, a team fine hardly gets to the root of the problem, and that's just how little regard some players have for their fellow NHLers' well- being. That opposing players deserve to be treated with a certain level of respect shouldn't have to be reiterated to people who have been playing the game since they were toddlers.

The only real recourse the NHL has in dealing with these illegal hits is increasing the suspension time for guilty players. The league has stepped up the number of games levied against its players in recent years, but clearly, even stiffer sanctions are needed.

When the NHL handed Chris Simon of the Islanders a 25-game suspension last March for hitting the Rangers' Ryan Hollweg across the face with a two-handed swing of his stick, it was the longest suspension ever handed out by the league. However, that record didn't even last until the end of the calendar year, as Boulerice matched that penalty as a result of his stick-to-head hit.

Critics will say the incidents are simply the result of a few players making rash decisions in the heat of the moment, and that no level of suspension can stop these type of plays from happening. I agree with that in part, but when it's clear that the current standards for suspensions aren't even slowing down this epidemic, then it's time for the league to play hardball.

When Major League Baseball's initial steroid policy was deemed to be too lenient, the league came back with a new system that exceeded the previous punishments by leaps and bounds. Baseball's problem is still prevalent because of flaws in the testing program, but luckily, hockey has it much easier as it only needs to watch game video to catch players rather than acquire a positive steroid test.

The NHL should put a system in place that has clear and serious repercussions for any player engaged in illegal hits. For example, a stick infraction like Simon's from last year should result in a full year out of the league. A second offense from the same player would then result in a lifetime banishment. If that doesn't get the message across to players, then and only then will I believe that longer suspensions are ineffective.

The new system would not only increase the punishments handed out by the NHL, but also make it clearer as to what specific length of suspension will correspond to a particular hit. As it stands now, there is too much debate on how long suspensions should be. It would be much easier to say that an intentional stick to the head of a player demands a minimum suspension of 50 games, or whatever number the league deems to be fair.

The problem is that violent offenders know that they could receive leniency based on other factors taken into consideration by the NHL. Mandatory minimums would send the message that if you deliver dangerous or violent hits, then you will receive X amount of games, regardless of other factors that could be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, this would result in unfair penalties to be handed out in certain situations, but at least it would be clear that the NHL meant business.

There have also been other suggestions about how to handle violent hits, and one of them involves forcing the guilty player to sit out for at least as long as the victim is sidelined due to injury. That would mean Jones would still be serving time for his hit against Bergeron.

While the ultimate goal of suspension is to protect players, the sanctions should be handed out based on intent and not for the damage caused by the hit. Then again, when a player's motive is clearly malicious and the hit also causes serious injury, obviously the extent of the damage should be greatly considered in the length of the suspension.

The task of coming up with new and harsher punishments for illegal and dangerous is one that the NHL needs to take more seriously. Hockey fans love physical play, but nobody wants to see a criminal act take place on the ice.

One thing is certain, if the NHL doesn't come up with a solution soon, the Flyers won't be the last team to test the limits of the league's policy.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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