Matt Cooke’s Dirty Hit on Marc Savard a Sign That Rules Need to Change in NHL


Matt Cooke's Dirty Hit on Marc Savard a Sign That Rules Need to Change in NHL A solid effort and textbook road game by the Bruins ended in an unfortunate 2-1 loss to the Penguins on Sunday. But the result Sunday was secondary, because Bruins center Marc Savard was the victim of a vicious blindsided elbow by Penguins forward Matt Cooke and, according to team representative Eric Tosi, will remain in Pittsburgh Sunday night with a team physician.

“Marc lost consciousness briefly on the ice after being struck in the head,” Tosi told the media following the game. “He suffered a concussion from the hit. He was not transported to a hospital but will remain at the team hotel in Pittsburgh with a member of the Bruins’ medical staff tonight as a precaution. No further update on Marc’s condition is expected tonight.”

In the original clip on NESN, it is hard to tell if Cooke elbowed Savard, but this video clip posted by a Penguins fan clearly shows Cooke’s elbow hitting Savard’s head and, more importantly, intent to injure. Savard had just let a shot off and was clearly unaware of Cooke bearing down on him. Cooke has time to follow through cleanly or not use his elbow, but he does.

Hockey is a fast sport, but the fact that both referees and two linesmen all missed this play — despite Savard just having the puck not even a second before he was hit — is unacceptable. Unfortunately, it’s more common than you’d think in today’s NHL, as witnessed by the no-call on Canadiens forward Maxim Lapierre‘s hit from behind that sent Sharks forward Scott Nichol flying into the boards Thursday. Lapierre got suspended four games for that cowardly act and kudos to the NHL for at least acting on that incident and sending a message that it won’t be tolerated. Luckily, Nichol will only miss seven to 10 days with a shoulder injury and didn’t get seriously hurt.

Bruins head coach Claude Julien did a great job of holding back his emotions and let the referees off the hook a bit after the game when talking to NESN rinkside analyst Naoko Funayama.

“You’ve got four guys out there,” Julien said. “You think somebody would’ve seen it, but even myself, I was looking elsewhere. It happens, so you’ve got to look at it objectively and say, well, nobody’s seen it. But you can look at the replays, which we have an opportunity to do, and it’s pretty obvious that it was a dirty hit.”

Unfortunately, sometimes all the replays available don’t matter, as proven by the inconsistent job done by NHL head disciplinarian Colin Campbell, who hands down the league’s suspensions. Remember back in October when Panthers forward David Booth was blindsided by an open-ice elbow from Flyers captain Mike Richards? Richards wasn’t even suspended and Booth subsequently missed 45 games and the Olympics, where he would have played for Team USA. Booth just returned this past week and actually dropped the gloves with Richards, himself.

Cooke, who already has one two-game suspension this season for a blindside, open-ice hit on Rangers forward Artem Anisimov, may not be as lucky as Richards. Along with the earlier suspension, and two previous two-game suspensions (last season and in 2003-04 while with the Canucks), the NHL could be sensing a trend. Cooke is well known around the NHL as a dirty player, and he also got away with a knee-on-knee hit to Carolina’s Erik Cole during the playoffs last spring and has avoided punishment numerous times.

Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman, who had not seen the hit when he met the media after Sunday’s loss, said, “Figures it was him,” when he was notified it was Cooke.

Claude Julien, for one, thinks there need to be larger steps taken to combat this kind of play.

“A guy like that has to be suspended,” the Bruins coach said. “That’s the way I see it, because it’s an elbow to the head from the blind side. That’s exactly the examples they show of what we’ve got to get out of this game. We have a guy who’s got a concussion. Our best player. He’s going to be out for a while. He was [unconscious] on the ice for a bit. That’s unacceptable.”

In my mind, Julien is right. The hammer needs to come down hard on Cooke, just like his elbow came down on Savard’s head. If it were up to yours truly, he would be suspended for at least 10 games, but he will probably get five at most. And for those who question my objectivity because I’m based in Boston, covering Savard and the Bruins, I still think Michael Ryder, despite my belief that there was no intent to injure, should get a three-game suspension for his hit from behind Saturday on Blake Comeau. That, too, was an irresponsible play that can’t be allowed in the NHL.

Part of the NHL’s attempt at suggesting that Richards’ hit on Booth was not worthy of suspension was Richards’ prior history of not being suspended. But Lapierre had never been suspended either before his hit on Nichol, and he got four games on the sidelines. So it really is anyone’s guess what Campbell will do to punish Cooke, but his history should play a role. How can you hand down four games to a player with no priors and then nothing to Cooke? Hopefully this won’t be the case.

If Cooke gets less than five games and plays against the Bruins in Boston on March 18, chances are that Savard won’t be around to exact revenge on him as Booth did on Richards. But while his teammates might try, chances are slim they will get much in the way of payback on Cooke. He has a history of turtling and avoiding fights, like he did after a cheap shot on Vincent Lecavalier last season, making Lecavalier chase him around the ice.

The other, more important reason for revenge rarely being served is the instigator penalty, which, in turn, helps to facilitate dirty plays (as the instigator will often get a more serious penalty than the person making the dirty play to begin with). But, unfortunately, that rule is staying for now. So until a clear-cut penalty on blindside hits is established, Cooke and others like him will go on knowing that they can play with reckless disregard for the game. The league won’t allow the players to police themselves. So when will the league itself start policing the game better?

“At some point there’s got to be a clear indication from the league because we’ve seen this so many times now,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told The Associated Press after Sunday’s game. “You don’t like to see anyone, their own teammate or an opposing player, lay on the ice like that. That was scary.”

NHL GMs have monitoring head shots on the agenda for their meetings in Florida this week. To this point, there is no black-and-white rule dictating punishments for hits to the head and, to be fair, each incident needs to be reviewed independently. Comparables and prior history are factored in, but there is no set rule. Back in November, a rule against blindside hits was discussed and that again will be a main topic this week, but the time to talk is over. Now is the time for the league to act.

The players clearly have lost respect for each other, and it is time to institute a rule. Will it take something like a repeat of Patrice Cormier‘s predatory and disgusting hit on Mikael Tam during the Stanley Cup Finals for hockey to realize something needs to be done? Or will it take someone actually dying?

Do it now, NHL, before it’s too late.

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