This time, the NHL got it right.
On Tuesday, the National Hockey League announced it was suspending
Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin for two games for his
knee-on-knee hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason in Monday night’s game. Even
though Ovechkin is one of the best if not THE best player in the game today,
the league did the right thing by suspending the Caps’ superstar.
The play in question was pretty clear cut. Ovechkin stuck out his knee
and hit Gleason as they skated past each other. Both players hit the ice
in pain although Ovechkin seemed to get the worst of the collision. The Caps’
winger was given a major penalty for kneeing and a game misconduct on the play.
This is not the first time Ovechkin has been involved in a border line play.
Just a week ago, he was assessed a major for boarding and a game misconduct in
a game against the Sabres. There was also a questionable hit with the
knee by Ovechkin on Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar in last year’s playoffs.
Neither of the previous incidents resulted in suspension.
Unlike many elite scorers, Ovechkin plays a physical style of hockey.
He led the Caps in hits last year by a large margin (he had 243 while the next
highest Capitals’ player had 157) and was leading the club again this season
with 58 hits in 21 games. No other Washington forward had more than 34.
But Ovechkin is not just physical, he is aggressive and at times, his play approaches
the line between aggressive and dirty. Even his coach, Bruce Boudreau,
described Ovechkin’s style as “pretty reckless” and Boudreau almost
HAS to defend his best player.
Historically in pro sports, superstars have enjoyed a double standard when
it comes to officiating. In baseball, a Hall of Fame pitcher gets the
close call when the ball may be just off the outside corner, in basketball,
players like Michael Jordan often got away with traveling or didn’t have fouls
called against them (does anybody truly believe Wilt Chamberlain never deserved
to foul out of a game in his career?).
In hockey, star players often get calls others may not get when they are hit
or can get away with being a bit more physical with an opponent before a
penalty is called. It may not be fair, but the fact remains that people
pay good money to see the Sidney Crosbys and Wayne Gretzkys of the world while
very few people are eager to shell out $150 or more per ticket to see a third
or fourth line winger.
But while a superstar may get some leeway, they should not be allowed to
step too far outside the rules, especially when the health and safety of other
players are involved. What Ovechkin did was dangerous and the league
needed to address it.
The play was also similar to the one Montreal’s Georges Laraque was
suspended for about a week ago. Laraque, who is known as a tough but
clean player, received a five-game suspension. It would be difficult for
NHL Vice President Colin Campbell to justify Laraque’s suspension while
allowing Ovechkin to walk away scot free.
Ironically, even if the league did not step in and suspend Ovechkin, he
would have likely sat out the next two games anyway because he was injured on
the play. Still, by holding Ovechkin accountable, the league is making a
statement that there are certain lines that even superstars cannot cross and
that is something that truly needed to be said.