Late in the second period of last Friday’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Blue Jackets’ Brandon Dubinsky took a two-minute penalty for cross-checking Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
That’s not an unusual thing, but Dubinsky’s cross-check merited a closer look than most. The NHL’s brass took notice, and handed down a one-game suspension. But was it enough?
First, let’s take a look at the actual foul. The incident happened in front of the Blue Jackets’ net while the Penguins controlled the puck. Crosby battled with Dubinksy at the side of the net and then positioned himself directly in front of the crease. Dubinsky skated in behind him.
Dubinsky them delivered a vicious cross-check to the Crosby’s head, hitting him around ear-level from behind. Crosby collapsed. Dubinsky followed up a second later with another cross-check, this one to Crosby’s back while he was still on the ice. Dubinsky, who had broken his stick on one of these two cross-checks, then tossed it aside.
The NHL’s Logic
Why would such a dangerous play merit only one game? Well, according to the NHL, it’s because the cross check was not “overly violent or forceful.” That’s a curious definition for a cross-check that broke a stick, and many observers have questioned the punishment.
It’s also worth noting that this particular incident did not result in an injury. The NHL has been heavily criticized for inconsistent safety enforcement in the past, and one notable issue is their tendency to punish based on the results of hits, rather than on hits themselves.
What if Crosby had suffered a concussion from this hit? Would the punishment for the same hit be higher? Unfortunately for the NHL brass, it seems likely.
The Crosby Factor
Complicating the question of a suspension is the fact of Crosby’s superstardom. There’s a perception among fans that superstars in general, and Sidney Crosby in particular, are better protected by the league than everyday players.
While fans tend to exaggerate this factor, it is important to note that superstar status does raise the profile of a case like this. Dubinsky didn’t cross-check just any player: he cross-checked the best player in the NHL.
However, this influence would presumably lead to stiffer punishments, not lighter ones. Most observers consider Dubinsky’s punishment either fair or too lenient, not too extreme, so Crosby’s high profile doesn’t seem to be the main issue in this case.
Where Have the Enforcers Gone?
Why is the NHL so bad at handling discipline fairly, and why is it even worse with star players? Part of the answer comes from the changing nature of the game, which once featured tough enforcers that would fight players that messed with their stars.
Fighting still exists in the NHL, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not longer a significant deterrent to dirty play and the targeting of stars. Maybe that’s because the value of shutting down a star is clearer now, or maybe it’s because safety regulations keep fights from getting too extreme. Whatever the case, the NHL is no longer policed by team enforcers – and discipline is left to the NHL itself.
Has the NHL Done Enough?
A one-game suspension isn’t insignificant, but it’s also not a huge deterrent to future misbehavior. Missing one game out of 82 doesn’t hurt Dubinsky much, and more importantly, it doesn’t hurt his team. Dubinsky’s actions took Crosby out of the game, and the referee’s failure to eject Dubinksy kept him in it. Dubinsky later contributed to the overtime win for Columbus.
Dubinsky didn’t take this action because he is an evil person; he did it because it helps his team. To be effective, the NHL’s discipline would have to render his actions harmful to his team.
One game doesn’t do that – Dubinsky’s net contributions were still good for the Jackets. The NHL needs to take incidents like this more seriously, and that means not shying away from multi-game bans.