The National Hockey League got it right on the Jason Spezza suspension.
The problem is that we are so accustomed to them getting it wrong. There is an endless list of transgressions that have not been punished or barely punished with small fines. That ends up hanging over a six-game suspension to Spezza, a player who has no track record with these kinds of incidents.
Jason Spezza has appealed the decision. It is a smart play by him because the Department of Player Safety is not known for setting a precedent with harsh punishment.
Out for Justice
While the Maple Leafs bench exploded following the knee-on-knee hit by Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk on Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin, the NHL cannot outwardly condone vigilante justice. On the down low, for sure, no problem. The league has winked at that kind of behaviour forever.
But this is why Jason Spezza is getting suspended. Not for seeking out revenge, but by being so glaringly obvious about it and not being able to hide the fact that this was about revenge.
Anyone that has played a competitive level of hockey has heard the saying, “Take a number.” This is a sport that, given its physical nature and speed, offers countless opportunities to exact physical payback on an opponent. The message has long been that it is okay to take that revenge but try to be a little discreet. Take a number, get them later.
This ignores the fact that the National Hockey League should not want their players policing the game in this manner. For the most part, teams have moved on from having designated fighters, so that is progress, but leaving justice to the players has long been a recipe for disaster.
According to the Jets, Neal Pionk was suffering from concussion symptoms two days after the kneeing hit from Spezza, which is entirely possible. It also begs the question of whether they have concussion spotters in Winnipeg. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon went to the quiet room Wednesday after he was clobbered by Rangers defenceman Jacob Trouba, so they do exist. But was there someone watching Jason Spezza drive his knee into a vulnerable Pionk and instantly decided that Pionk was surely fine in the aftermath? He did play the rest of the game but that’s some judgment call to make in the moment.
There is also the problem of referees not calling Pionk’s penalty in the first place. Never mind what it could mean to the outcome of the game. The Maple Leafs had dug a sufficiently large hole already.
Trust Is Not There
This is a sport that has a longstanding tradition of players taking justice into their own hands if it is not going to be handled by the officials. This is known and well-established. If Pionk was called for a penalty, the Maple Leafs would have been on a power play and not out for blood. With no penalty, Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds hop the boards and do what is expected of them.
There cannot be free reign every time a referee misses a call but, in the moment, a team sees a hit ultimately deemed worthy of suspension receiving no punishment, so of course someone was going to take a run at Neal Pionk. The surprise is that it was Jason Spezza.
This is a league in which hard legal hits still draw fights. If someone is crossing the line to the degree that the Department of Player Safety needs to get involved, it warranted a penalty call in the first place. Ultimately, Pionk was suspended for two games but expecting a team to stand idly by while hoping that the Department of Player Safety steps up would be to ignore the history of the Department of Player Safety.
Basically, the culture of the sport could be entirely different if players could trust that the Department of Player Safety would come down hard on dangerous and illegal play. But that’s not the reputation that the Department of Player Safety has. That’s not even the reputation that they want. Until that changes, they will continue to react to players serving out their own justice because the players don’t trust the league to get it right.
To the links…
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