When Max Pacioretty lowered the boom on Kris Letang on Saturday night, most of us figured Brendan Shanahan would send him to the press box. The only question was whether the suspension would be for one game or two. Shanahan surprised many by handing down a three-game sentence; a pretty stiff penalty in light of some of the other hits we've seen go unpunished this year. And you know what? Pacioretty deserved it.
He could have let up before making contact with Letang, but he didn't. He knew he was wrong too, as was apparent with his immediate apology. The hit broke Letang's nose, but didn't prevent him from returning to score the winner in OT. Pacioretty, in this case, was very lucky nothing worse happened. Having been the victim of that crushing hit by Zdeno Chara last year, he knows better than most what the consequences of irresposible hits can be. The very fact that he's been there himself and was affected deeply enough to start a foundation to help treat brain injuries should justify the three-game suspension. If a guy who's been on the receiving end of a head shot can still hit another player that way, it shows even the best of intentions can fall by the wayside in the heat of the action. Shanahan's reaction underlines the need for all players to be responsible for what they do on the ice, and accept the consequences for hurting another guy.
This is where the NHL has a problem. While few will dispute that Pacioretty deserved a suspension, it's tough to swallow when Boston's Milan Lucic can run over Buffalo's Ryan Miller, concussing him, and get nothing for it. If the league is to regain a modicum of respect, it has to be consistent in its discipline. The alternative is looking amateurish and appearing as though the NHL brass plays favourites. When conspiracy theories like those become the norm, hockey draws a step closer to professional wrestling in the public's perception.
When Brendan Shanahan became the NHL's Super Cop, many previously-disillusioned fans saw it as a sign of change. The hope was that a former player of Shanahan's stature (without a kid playing in the league) would be the soul of thoughtful justice. That hope grew with the rash of suspensions Shanahan dispensed in the pre-season. The carefully detailed explanation videos he prepared for each case made a lot of sense.
It seems, however, that in the analysis of the minutiae of every hit, Shanahan is losing sight of the bottom line. The question should be, "Did Player X hit Player Y in the head?" If the answer is "yes," then it's suspension-worthy. Shanahan, with his talk of angles of a guy's head, which foot the player's weight rests upon and perceived intent, is making these cases much more convoluted than they should be. In the case of Pacioretty, the player making the hit nailed his opponent in the head and, despite instant remorse, got a significant suspension. Canadiens fans can recognize the risk inherent in that hit and understand the decision.
It's when the super slo-mo view of a fast game provides excuses for glossing over actions that we feel progress is moving at a snail's pace. So, today it's not hard for Habs fans to feel there's no justice in the league. Hits on Pacioretty and Chris Campoli saw the perpetrators go free, while Pacioretty as the hitter rather than the hittee got suspended. The argument today isn't whether he should have been punished, it's why so many others are not. That's what the NHL and Shanahan need to fix.