So tonight the Blackhawks played the Minnesota Wild in NHL action, and it just so happened to include the first major penalty I've ever seen called in an NHL game. Nate Prosser of the Minnesota Wild headbutted Jamal Mayers of the Chicago Blackhawks, for which he received a 5 minute major penalty and an ejection. There isn't yet video up so I can't give you a link, nor do we have word yet on whether the NHL will take additional disciplinary action. It's that uncertainty though that inspired this post.
First, let me say I am a Blackhawks fan, so there will undoubtedly be some homerism in my analysis. That being said, I think Prosser should receive a suspension.
If you watched the hit, it came during a post whistle scrum around the goal. Prosser deliberately headbutted Mayers in the face with his helmet. This wasn't an on the fly, mid-game collision. This wasn't an intersection of body parts. This was a deliberate assault using a piece of equipment, an action that implies a desire to seriously hurt if not injure an opposing player. The icing on the cake is it was delivered to the head, and we know how seriously concussions are being taken these days.
For some recent context, Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks got suspended 5 games in March for delivering an elbow to the head of Daniel Sedin. Now, Sedin got a concussion from that hit, and Mayers did not receive a concussion from this hit. Furthermore, Keith's hit was in retaliation for a hit on him earlier in the game. I am sure both the severity of injury as well as the retaliation aspect played into the severity of the penalty, but I hope they aren't the whole story.
I am uncomfortable making the presence of injury the determining factor in whether a suspension is handed down at all. If suspensions are designed to prevent injury by discouraging the type of action that leads to injury, then they should be applied to actions that are either intended to injure or create a recklessly high risk of injury (regardless of actual injury).
So that being said, headbutting another player in the face with a helmet on seems like the kind of willful action that is designed to injure, or at least creates such a high risk of injury as to be intolerable. No one was actually injured, and it wasn't in retaliation, so I wouldn't call for a five game suspension like Keith received. But I think a suspension of some sort is merited.
But what interests me about this is that having the league hand down suspensions after the game seems to be a tacit admission on the part of the league that their in game controls, their in game punishments, aren't sufficient. It's one thing to, say, hand down fines and suspension for off field/ice/court activities, like the Saints management scheming with players to pay bounties for injuries. That took place off the field, it should be punished off the field. But we're talking about in game activities. Football has 15 yards for unnecessary roughness, basketball has flagrant fouls, hockey has major penalties. All have ejections. But they aren't always enough. And this isn't just limited to situations where a player snaps on the field and exceeds the bounds of decency, like taking a charging high stick slash to the throat. Suspension can be handed down for plays that only get minor penalties if the head is involved. Something that wasn't ejection worthy at the time can end up costing you games down the road. That is only a function of our over correcting for the fact that we haven't yet figured out how to properly police players mid-game.