Sunday, January 08, 2006

It's a familiar story -- a National Hockey Player skates up from behind and sucker-punches a fellow player, who lays motionless on the ice while the rest of the arena wonders how seriously he's injured.

But we're not talking about the now-infamous Todd Bertuzzi attack on Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore two years ago. Everyone has watched the video and knows that Bertuzzi is back skating for the Vancouver Canucks while Steve Moore continues his recovery from a broken neck and wonders if he'll ever play again.

No, we're talking about an incident that happened just this Friday, one that very few NHL fans have seen. It was just as disgusting, just as unwarranted and just as badly handled by the NHL brass.

In the first period of Friday's Hurricanes-Islanders game, Carolina's Justin Williams was called for interference after he banged into New York's Eric Godard. It was not a particularly vicious hit, although Williams did get his stick up a bit.

In retaliation, Godard skated all the way across the ice and blasted Williams in the back of the head with a punch that left the Hurricane incapacitated. For his indiscretion, Godard received a whopping double-minor for roughing and charging, and Williams got up a few seconds later and skated to the penalty box.

The incident was reviewed by the NHL, which handed down a two-game suspension. That's right -- two measly games.

But why would this incident draw such an insignificant penalty? These circumstances are almost exactly the same as the Bertuzzi assault -- player skates great distance to deliver a sucker-punch to an unsuspecting victim. Only the outcome is different, as Williams is apparently all right.

The answer is that it takes a life-threatening or career-ending injury for the league to hand down any sort of stringent penalty. We hear about "The Code", the NHL's unwritten law to handle this sort of thuggery, and that law was applied.

Mike Commodore of the Hurricanes slashed Godard the second period, and in the third Aaron Ward took a dangerous boarding penalty for driving Godard into the dashers from behind. Does the NHL consider what took place later in the contest part of the sentence for Godard's ignorance? If so, why?

What action would the league have taken if Ward had paralyzed Godard? And would the NHL not have been partly responsible for not having removed Godard from the game after his offense?

In fact, if Godard returns and again sucker-punches an opponent but this time causes grievous injury, is the NHL not partly liable for allowing a known offender to work in its workplace? Certainly a lawyer could make that case during a civil trial.

This was an opportunity for the league to step up and put the hammer down on such activity, It could have sent a clear message to the small element of its own that considers it acceptable to try to injure fellow players.

Instead, the NHL again put its head in the sand. Hopefully fans will remember this act of cowardice when another player ends up like Moore -- out of the game simply because the league failed to police itself.

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