If you watched Marc Savard address the media on Saturday for the first time since taking a blindside hit from Penguins forward Matt Cooke, you have to be asking yourself one thing: Why has it taken so many news conferences, and so many blindside hits and cheap shots, for the NHL to finally institute a rule against them?
Well, it's simple. The NHL took away the ability for players to police themselves on the ice, and through mixed messages and inconsistent discipline, the league took away the referees' ability to do the same job.
After watching Savard's teammate, Johnny Boychuk, run Flames forward Rene Bourque with an elbow to the head in the third period of the Bruins' 5-0 win on Saturday, it's unfortunately easier to understand why the NHL dragged its feet on the issue. It's easier to understand why the league never suspended Cooke, and why this new rule against headshots will not have the desired immediate impact.
There is a culture and a mentality in the NHL indicating that players believe these irresponsible acts are their only means of justice. That culture isn't going to change overnight. It is frightening that it still may take a career-ending injury or even a death to rid the NHL of these dangerous plays. It may go that far before the players, coaches, management and the powers that be in the NHL realize how much lethal power players possess in this fast and physical game. Players see no problem using that power to even the score.
Savard is not doing well. That was clear from the way he looked and the way he spoke on Saturday. While he didn't look as bad as Patrice Bergeron did when he addressed the media after suffering a Grade 3 concussion on a hit-from-behind by Randy Jones in October 2007, Savard is clearly not himself right now, and he won’t be for the foreseeable future. In fact, for the foreseeable future, Savard may not be the player he was before this injury. It took Bergeron until this season to fully regain his game and become the player he once was before that fateful day.
So (and let it be known that this is not a shot against Boychuk) the question has to be posed: How can Boychuk, after seeing Savard before Saturday's game and being aware of his teammate's state, go out and commit such an act, running the risk of inflicting a similar injury on Bourque? Sure, it was a different play, but Bourque — like Savard — was defenseless at the time. Despite all that has gone on in the past week, month and season, Boychuk followed through with an elbow. Bourque did appear to slewfoot Boychuk right before, but that's no excuse for possibly sending him into Savard’s current physical and mental condition.
This is the league we're in now. This is the culture players like Boychuk are taught to play in. That isn't to condone Boychuk's actions and say he shouldn't pay accordingly with a hefty suspension, but the NHL dug its own mess, and this new rule against headshots isn’t going to clean it up right away. You can’t change a mentality or a culture in an instant. Boychuk, despite a solid season, is still battling for a spot on the Bruins' blue line and must feel the need to make an impact both physically and on the scoreboard. Combine that with raw emotion, and you've got the recipe for disaster if he can’t just pummel Bourque with his fists.
"I don't think I should be suspended, but we will see what they have to say," Boychuk said after the Bruins' 5-0 win over the Flames. "I just went to finish my check, and I saw a couple sticks in the air, and I thought I got my glove in his face, not an elbow."
"I mean, for me, I didn't intend on hurting Marc Savard at all. I am sorry that he is hurt."
That's what Cooke said after the Penguins' rematch with the Bruins on March 18, in which he took a beating from Shawn Thornton. As Savard pointed out during Saturday's news conference, talk is cheap — and that talk isn't going to suddenly cure what Savard is battling through right now.
The new headshot rule will not instantly cure the NHL of this culture, either. Players are human, and emotions run high in hockey. It's only normal that those emotions cause players to seek revenge when they feel wronged.
That won't change unless the NHL truly enforces its new rule, or if the league comes to its senses and once again allows players to exact revenge by dropping the gloves, the way Thornton did with Cooke. It would also help if the league didn’t question the referees, granting them the authority and confidence to call what they know is correct. For that matter, give the league disciplinarian Colin Campbell – who reportedly might not be in that position for long — the green light to make decisions on his own. This is only speculation, but is it possible that Campbell delayed his decision on Cooke's punishment because he was getting mixed messages from above? Whatever the case, he didn’t act with the same authority he has on previous incidents.
Until other changes occur — and a league-wide culture change occurs — the lack of respect for the rule will endure, even it warrants a suspension under the new headshot policy. For now, the rule just doesn't look to be enough. Just as there is a long road ahead for Savard, there is a long road ahead for the NHL in changing what is now a scary and unsafe game.