— Eighty-nine seconds. That’s enough time to defrost the meatballs in a Hot Pocket. It’s enough time to hear the best parts of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” It’s also enough time to take two shifts in a Stanley Cup final, to launch yourself into an unsuspecting player and use your left shoulder to bring a violent end to both of your seasons.
Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome selected the third option during Game 3, his late hit leaving Boston’s Nathan Horton motionless on the ice for the kind of terrifying minutes that left the entire TD Garden crowd with interlaced fingers and whispered petitions. Horton was diagnosed with a severe concussion and is out indefinitely, while Rome earned the first multiple-game suspension in Stanley Cup history.
Despite the seriousness of Horton's injury, sadly, it isn't surprising. Frequent physical play is what makes hockey, well, hockey. Violence is woven as tightly into the fabric of the game as the numbers stitched on Shawn Thornton’s sweater. But there’s a difference between hip checking and headhunting, between aggressively hitting someone and actively trying to hurt them. And anything — anything — above the neck should be off-limits.
The NHL doesn't need to become the Olympics, where intentional contact is less welcome than the Human Torch on a vinyl sofa. But it is, as the New York Times noted, “one of the last junior or senior leagues to allow some form of contact with the head.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like seeing somebody get their ribcage rearranged, cringing after the kind of hit that scrambles your television reception. I like hard-fought games. I like hard hits. But I also like hearing Nathan Horton’s name in sentences that don’t end with “feeling in his extremities.”
When I heard that Mike Murphy, the NHL’s VP of Hockey Operations, decided to keep Rome off the ice for four games, I thought, “Finally.” Although Murphy never raised his voice during his Q&A with reporters, that suspension loudly suggests that the NHL is finally going to take headshots and cheap shots seriously. It’s also the first real discipline that has been delivered during a finals that have been inconsistently officiated but consistently “chippy,” to use Canada’s overworked euphemism.
And, because hand chomper Alex Burrows isn’t in my living room, I’m extending my finger directly at the refs for letting this series get out of hand early. Between Burrows’ Twilight-worthy bite and the literal finger-pointing between everyone from square-jawed skin irritant Maxim Lapierre to elderly Mark Recchi (who should’ve just called Lapierre on his Jitterbug phone), the first three games have been borderline chaotic.
The fact that Burrows wasn’t suspended after doing his Edward Cullen impression — and managed to net Game 2’s overtime game-winner — meant that animosity would be on tap alongside the Sam Adams when the series shifted back to Boston. And it was. The two teams combined for 145 penalty minutes, the most in a final game since 1990, both penalty boxes as crowded as Kate Gosselin’s uterus. But 80 percent of those PIM total came after Horton had already been admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital. The refs attempted to make up for lost time and missed calls, but it was well past too late.
Now Rome and Horton’s names will always be painfully intertwined, like Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty. Like Trevor Gillies and Cal Clutterbuck. Like Matt Cooke and … pretty much everybody.
After watching Cooke repeatedly target players’ heads, the NHL responded by writing and implementing Rule 48, which states that “a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
“The elimination of these types of hits should significantly reduce the number of injuries, including concussions, without adversely affecting the level of physicality in the game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said at the time.
But one season and more than 80 concussions later (17 percent as a result of illegal hits), we can assume that the players haven’t bookmarked that page in the rule book yet.
According to Murphy, though, the hit that put Horton in the hospital wasn’t a Rule 48 violation but the suspension was because of both the timing of the hit and Horton’s severe concussion.
“The key components [of the suspension] are the late hit, which I had it close to a second late,” Murphy explained. “We have our own formula at NHL Hockey Operations for determining late hits and it was late. We saw the seriousness of the injury with Nathan on the ice.”
Got that? If so, please explain it to me. Although seeing the league dish out some significant punishment is a relief, they still have some work to do when it comes to being consistent — just ask Max Pacioretty.
“There’s no fun to this,” Murphy said. “There’s no enjoyment to this. Nobody wins in this. Everybody loses. The fans lose. We lost two good hockey players.”
It took 89 seconds for “this” to happen. It’ll take much, much longer to fix it.
I just hope the repairs start tonight.