First of all, let me start this post by saying that it is entirely built on an assumption. Usually in argumentative writing (or any form of argumentative structure), it is dangerous to build an argument based on assumption. This is not one of those times. Sometimes, assumptions can be used to analyze a situation that we hope won’t come true in the future. This is one of those times.
During Sunday night’s game, Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo hit Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel pretty much directly in the head. “Hit” is a term used loosely here. “Flying elbow straight to the unsuspecting dome of Ruhwedel” is a much better used term, in this instance. I don’t think the league endorses that sort of rhetoric, though. Not yet, at least. News came through on Monday that Rinaldo (to the surprise of pretty much no one) would be suspended four games. For those keeping score at home, that’s the remainder of the regular season. You can see the NHL’s full decision on the ruling as well as the “hit” itself (again, a term used loosely) right here:
The point of this post is not to argue the length of Rinaldo’s suspension. I just finished listening to Matthew Coller on WGR (who you should follow on Twitter) talk about how the length of the suspension is fair when juxtaposed with the rest of the suspensions. Coller is correct. Four games is not out-of-place among the list of hits-to-the-head suspensions this season. Except, of course, among John Scott’s 7 game penalty and Pat Kaleta’s 10 gamer (but that’s a story for another day, nevermind, anyway).
Here’s where things get tricky and assumption-y. What if this hit occurred in game 80 of 82 for the Flyers and not game 78? Clearly, a bit of “the narrative” here was an overwhelming sense that Rinaldo would get the conveniently-timed four game season ender. This way, he wouldn’t miss any playoff time and the NHL wouldn’t be responsible for potentially hampering a team’s playoff chances. It’s neat and tidy and no one gets hurt from it. Well, no one except Chad Ruhwedel. He could have recurring head problems, chronic headaches and all sorts of other fun things that come with concussions. But hey, that’s why the NHL is CLEARLY taking this hit out of the game. I mean, look, it’s out of the game right?
Anyway, IF the NHL did time Rinaldo’s suspension in a way such that he wouldn’t have to miss any playoff time, doesn’t that set up an awfully scary precedent? Basically, that’s the NHL saying “If you slam your elbow into a guy’s head on the 15th game of the season, WE’LL THROW THE BOOK AT YOU! But if you do that hit in game 80… Weeeeeeeellllll, we’ll just see about that.” Why should one part of the season be unaffected by timing, yet another part solely hinge upon it? It’s dangerous and sends a terrible message.
Moreover, shouldn’t guys be suspended just as heavily at the end of the season for these types of hits because it is so close to the post-season? I’ll do you one better, NHL. If the hit was deserving of say 5-6 games, then suspend Rinaldo into the playoffs. Let the idea of missing precious playoff time serve as a deterrent for this type of vicious headhunting. That way, when the season is winding down and a guy from a contending team hits the ice, he says to himself, “Okay. I need to play my game but I need to make sure that I’m still around to play my game in the playoffs.” Timing of the game in which the hit took place (and it’s context to the season) should have no place in the decision-making process.
Just to reiterate, I’m not saying that timing was THE ONLY factor in the NHL’s decision. According to the NHL’s suspension history this season for guys that played for teams not named “The Buffalo Sabres”, this suspension lines up.
as per @SalSports research, 7 non-sabres suspended for hits to head this season got combined 21 games. Kaleta/Scott/Myers combined 20 games
— howard (@hsimon62) April 8, 2014
So, if you take anything away from this post, don’t let it be that the NHL only gave Rinaldo 4 games because it was convenient. Though that definitely could have been a factor, the suspension is fair (relative to its brethren suspensions).
It’s still scary to think what would happen if the Sabres and Flyers played Sunday night’s tilt in Game 80 of the season (where there’d only be two regular season games to burn on a suspension) and Rinaldo threw that hit. Sadly, the only thing that would likely remain the same would be the damage to Chad Ruhwedel’s cranium. If the NHL is actually serious about removing hits to the head, one would hope that they’d treat every suspension length the same, regardless of timing. A player’s physical and mental health is not confined to times set by the NHL scheduling office, and neither should the league’s suspension process.