The NHL discipline czar, Brendan Shanahan has his hands full this week holding hearings against Pittsburgh Penguins players James Neal and Arron Asham. He also has suspended Chicago Blackhawks Andrew Shaw for hitting the opposing goalie.
Although Shanahan is doing his best to prevent the head injuries which have plagued the NFL in recent years, the sport of hockey has its own informal "code" for enforcing the safety of players: fighting.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but fighting prevents injuries to the best players like Pavel Datsyuk and Sidney Crosby which, in turn, maintains the fast pace and high skill brought by these players.
It is no surprise that atheletes in any sport head-hunt after the best players in order to weaken them or knock them out of the game, especially in the playoffs when the stakes are high. Just ask the New Orleans Saints. But the difference between hockey players and football is that hockey players are allowed to protect their stars through fighting. Imagine how few helmet-to-helmet hits there would be in the NFL if you knew that Ray Lewis was literally going to give you the beat down of your life the next time the football snaps. This is how is works in hockey.
A perfect example of the "code" in effect was in game 3 of the Detroit Red Wings vs. Nashville Predators series this year. Nashville Captain Shea Webber, in a fit of frustration and testosterone, slammed Detroit star forward Henrik Zetterberg's head directly into the glass. Where was Brendan Shanahan then? No suspension was issued and no hearing. The reason is because the very next game in the series, Todd Bertuzzi dropped the gloves with Webber to make him pay. Although the fight was not a highlight reel, it balanced the scales. No injuries resulted from the fight, Shanahan didn't have to spend any league money punishing them, the series has continued without further drama and the fans loved it!
In that high scoring and exciting game 3 thriller between the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyer's playoff series, 148 penalty minutes were issued, close to 100 shots were recorded on goal and 12 went between the pipes. This was one of the most energetic efforts and entertaining games of the playoffs thus far, in large part because players were allowed to fight. Even superstars Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux dropped the gloves.
During the game, Neal and Asham delivered a few questionable hits. Watch and read about them here. If you watch or play hockey it's pretty plain that this is acceptable playoff hockey aggression, if anything it is in a grey area. If Shanahan's 3 game suspension ruling on Chicago's Andrew Shaw is any guide, it is likely that they will also be suspended. If you listen to Shanahan's explanation of his ruling here and listen to the player's explanation (and the goalies soccer player-esque reaction) it is pretty clear that a three game suspension during the playoffs is over kill.
Shanahan is clearly making a political point about the "new direction" he wants to take the league while holding hands with the rest of the safety managers in the other leagues.
Shanahan, hockey is different. You have the least regulated, most violent and yet the most affluent fans in the four major sports (according to a Stanford School of Business Study in 2004). If you make arbitrary rulings during the playoffs, you will cause confusion among players. They all know the rules and are all protected under the "code."