Well, we knew it couldn’t last. The NHL’s department of player safety has finally had to get back to business.
It can thank San Jose enforcer John Scott, who left the bench to start a fight in Sunday’s game between the Ducks and Sharks, earning himself a two-game suspension. It was the first ban for an on-ice infraction all year, including the preseason, ending an almost unheard-of period of peace and quiet for our friends in the department of player safety.
In recognition of the recent stretch of leaguewide good behavior, let’s take a look back at some other incidents from NHL history that also didn’t earn a suspension. Of course, circumstances were a little different back then. For all the criticism the department of player safety comes under these days for just about any suspension it hands out (and especially the ones it doesn’t), it’s fair to say that today’s players don’t get away with anywhere near as much as they used to.
As evidence, consider the five hits below. None were deemed worthy of a suspension at the time. Today, that probably wouldn’t be the case. So let’s take a look back at some of the dirtiest clean hits of all time.
Matt Cooke on Marc Savard, March 7, 2010
The hit: We might as well get the obvious one out of the way first.
This was the hit that literally changed the sport, or at least its rulebook. Matt Cooke’s blindside hit of Marc Savard was vicious, dangerous, and unnecessary, a blatant attempt to injure a defenseless opponent. It was also, strictly speaking, legal. It wasn’t an elbow or a charge, it wasn’t especially late, and Cooke didn’t leave his feet. As much as the hit turned everyone’s stomach, there was nothing in the rulebook that said it was dirty.1
The verdict, then: No suspension, since the play didn’t technically break any rules and similar hits had always been deemed clean. But in an era in which we were beginning to understand the seriousness of concussions, it sure seemed like Cooke’s hit should have been suspendable, and even Don Cherry wanted him gone. It led to the introduction of Rule 48 the following offseason, which made it illegal to hit a player in the head from the blind side.
The verdict, now: If Cooke did it? He’d be out of the league. That’s not an exaggeration; after Cooke was busted for targeting the head yet again a year later, the league made it clear he had to change his game or find a new job. To his credit, for the most part he has.2 But if he ever throws another hit like this one, they’ll have the nameplate off his locker before the whistle finishes blowing.
If it was someone other than Cooke, we’d see a lengthy suspension that would depend partly on the resulting injury and the offending player’s history. Rule 48 is still poorly understood by many fans, and it’s led to plenty of debate over just how severe the resulting bans should be, but to its credit, the league has done a good job of making it clear that blindside hits to the head are no longer tolerated.
Which is a good thing, because those hits used to happen all the time, and sometimes they were really ugly, as we’ll see in our next clip.
Mark Messier on Mike Modano, February 26, 1994
The hit: Early in the third period of a 1994 regular-season game between the Stars and Rangers, Mike Modano cuts across the blue line and momentarily looks down for a pass in his skates. New York’s Mark Messier catches him with his head down.
Ignore the stuff with the stretcher that happens at the end of the video. The hit itself is a classic blindside, as Modano is in a defenseless position and Messier delivers a …
[Realizes everyone is just skipping ahead to the stretcher part anyways.]
Sigh. Yes, this is the infamous clip in which the medical staff drops Modano’s stretcher. Go ahead and watch that part 30 or 40 times if you must, but we’re not going to make fun of it here because we’re a little more mature than that, thank you very much. (And, uh, we already covered it frame by frame a few months ago.)
So Modano is in a defenseless position and Messier delivers a shoulder to the head that appears to knock him out cold. To make matters worse, Modano’s helmet comes off and he hits the back of his head on the ice, opening up a bad gash. He suffered a concussion and missed several games.
The verdict, then: No penalty, no fine, no suspension. Also, Modano’s own GM defended the play, saying, “I don’t know if it was so much a hit as Mike turned and skated right into him.” That’s a real quote. The whole incident was probably the most mind-boggling thing Messier was ever involved in, right up until that commercial that came out a few weeks ago in which he’s standing in a room full of Canucks fans and none of them are throwing garbage at him.
The verdict, now: In 1994, this was considered a clean hit. Today, it would be a classic Rule 48, and the resulting injury would make a hefty suspension all but inevitable. As a star player, Messier would get some benefit of the doubt. But he also had a history of questionable plays on his record, including a 10-game suspension for sucker punching Jamie Macoun in 1985. He’d get at least that much for this hit, and probably more.
(By the way, this wasn’t even the most ridiculous non-suspension hit against a Dallas Stars player in 1994. More on that in a minute.)