For the three of you who didn’t just turn this page into a new litter box for your cat, no, I have not sacrificed my journalistic objectivity.
I’m not rooting for or against anyone in terms of wins and losses.
What I will always root for, in the name of human decency, are teams that play the game the right way.
And if championships were awarded for valuing sportsmanship and not endangering your fellow players every time you take to the ice, this year’s Medicine Hat Tigers would be the runaway winners.
Of the most dangerous plays in hockey (and true root of the game’s concussion issues) — checks from behind and to the head — the entire Tigers’ roster has combined for just four penalties this season.
The next least penalized team in this area is the Kootenay Ice with nine — eight checking-from-behind (CFB) calls and one checking-to-the-head (CTH) call.
(The Swift Current Broncos are next with 10 total infractions while the Victoria Royals “lead” the Western Hockey League with 29.)
On its own, this all might elicit a big ol’ “big whoop” kind of reaction.
In context, each of the league’s nine worst individual offenders through the end of February had at least as many CFB and head shot penalties as all of Medicine Hat.
Ask former Bronco defenceman Eric Doyle why this is important.
To be fair, not all hits from behind are created equal.
Guys can slip, guys can trip, guys get pushed and guys can turn.
Likewise, some head shots are incidental.
But many of these hits are flat-out dirty — reckless at a minimum, malicious and something (apparently) just short of criminal at worst.
And the Western Hockey League has an epidemic.
Commissioner Ron Robison didn’t go quite that far but at least acknowledged the problem last February in an interview with the National Post.
“Quite frankly the No. 1 issue in the game is not fighting,” Robison said. “In our view it’s more concussions and related injuries that occur as a result of head blows. That’s our focus primarily, not as much on the fighting side of things.”
It’s a refreshing, albeit ballsy, stance in the midst of the international witch hunt on fighting in hockey.
(Contrary to what some would have you believe, you do have the ability to defend yourself in a hockey fight. You do not have this ability when an opponent targets your head or runs you unsuspectingly into the boards from behind.)
The next step is for Robison to actually do something about it.
While checking-from-behind penalties across the WHL have dropped 15 per cent from 2009-10 to this season (again, through the end of February), head shot penalties increased 12 per cent this year over last (the first year that penalty was introduced).
A community college PR hack could spin that to convince you that players are getting the message when it comes to hits from behind and that the increase in CTH calls is simply due to better enforcement.
The reality is that whatever message Robison is hoping to send to the WHL’s Most Wanted, it isn’t being received.
The reality is that the league’s nine worst offenders this season have combined for 22 CFB and 23 CTH penalties through the end of February.
Of those 45 penalties only nine resulted in suspensions. Combined sentence: Thirty-five games.
The reality is that Sam Grist of the Kamloops Blazers had to get called on six hits from behind before he was suspended for … drum roll, please … one game.
The reality is that seven entire teams have accumulated less head shot penalties this year than any of Brandon’s Tyler Yaworski and the Blazers’ JC Lipon or Joel Edmundson.
The reality is that the time for clichés and excuses is over.
These kinds of players — talented as they may be — are not merely “playing on the edge” or “finishing their checks” or “making hockey plays.”
They are ignorantly contributing to hockey’s giant black eye by consistently threatening the well-being of their fellow players.
One common argument in support of fighting is that it will keep the game’s true criminals in check.
“If you have guys who go out and give head shots, you can’t eliminate that if you don’t have the threat of being held accountable,” Tri-City Americans co-owner Olaf Kolzig told The Globe and Mail in September.
Actually, Olie, you can, as soon as the powers-that-be stop brushing off the most dangerous plays as “just part of the game.”
What if the so-called traditionalists stopped crying wolf about taking hitting out of the game for a second?
What if the first hit from behind or to the head earned the offender an automatic game misconduct — regardless of severity?
What if the subsequent penalties carried an automatic suspension, up to and including a rest-of-the-year ban?
That would turn some heads — and, for a change, not directly into the boards or the ice.