Blues' unpunished headshots show NHL doesn't care about player safety at all

Alex Reimer
June 07, 2019 - 4:32 pm

The officials’ refusal to whistle the Blues for head hunting in Game 5 sends another message besides exposing NHL referees as susceptible to hypnosis from Craig Berube. It shows the league is indifferent to player safety, and frankly, isn’t even pretending otherwise. 

That was evident early in the postseason, when Alex Ovechkin wasn’t suspended for pounding Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov into the ice, even though the 19-year-old rookie was seemingly knocked out and placed into concussion protocol. This went beyond the typical mid-game jousting –– it was a straight beatdown. While fighting across the league has decreased dramatically, the expected lack of discipline shows just how much it remains ingrained in the game’s culture.

The expectations for hockey appear to be different than football, and there’s far less scrutiny, too. In the conference semifinals, Charlie McAvoy was just given a minor for his headshot on Columbus’ Josh Anderson, and was merely suspended for one game. St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist also only missed one game for sending Matt Grzelcyk into concussion protocol. The young defenseman has now missed two games due to the hit.

These light suspensions create an easy calculation for players who have opportunities to crunch an opponent’s skull against the boards. Sundqvist is a fourth-line forward, whereas Grzelcyk is one of the Bruins’ most offensive-minded defensemen. St. Louis won the trade-off there, especially since Sundqvist only missed one contest.

The NFL rightfully gets pilloried whenever it fails to severely admonish headhunters. The same standard should apply to the NHL. But the Blues have been allowed to run rampant over the last two games, with Thursday serving as the apex of their unchecked brutality. Ivan Barbashev was not penalized for his blindside check to the head on Marcus Johansson, and Zach Sanford’s shoulder to Torey Krug’s head was ignored as well. 

Barbashev will have a hearing with league officials about the Johansson hit. Anything less than a two-game banishment would be another signal of tacit approval from the NHL. 

St. Louis’ Game 5 victory can be attributed to two factors: the offensive ineptitude of the Bruins’ first-line, and the Blues’ barbarism. The referees gave them an assist with the latter. The most notable non-call was Tyler Bozak’s slew-foot attempt on Noel Acciari –– which led to David Perron’s game-winning goal –– but that can be blamed on zebra incompetence. The lack of interest in protecting player safety is an institutional problem.

Commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t mention the words “concussion,” “brain,” or “safety” once in his pre-Stanley Cup press conference, per the New York Times. At least nine deceased NHL players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE, including Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard. And yet, Bettman continues to deny any link between playing hockey and brain trauma. (The NFL finally acknowledged the link between football and brain trauma in 2016.)

“I don’t believe there has been, based on everything I’ve been told — and if anybody has information to the contrary, we’d be happy to hear it — other than some anecdotal evidence, there has not been that conclusive link,” Bettman told the Canadian Parliamentary Committee last month.

This is not a plea to eliminate hard checks or hitting from hockey. Brayden Schenn walloped Zdeno Chara roughly 30 seconds into the game, immediately testing Big Z’s broken jaw. That was great theatre, and embodies the (clean) physicality that makes these games so appealing.

But there should be no room for blatant head shots. Barbashev might be suspended, but Sanford won’t face any punishment whatsoever. The league is inviting more of this in Game 6, with perhaps both sides opting to partake.

And that’s exactly what the NHL may want, given their ignorance of the issue.