Simon Done for the Season

Islanders forward Chris Simon has been suspended for the remainder of the 2006-07 regular season and the entirety of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in response to an incident during Thursday night’s game against the Rangers in which he hit New York Rangers’ Ryan Hollweg with a stick swing to the face.

Simon is suspended a minimum of 25 games, including Saturday night’s game against Washington plus the 14 that remain in the 2006-07 regular season. If the Islanders do not qualify for the 2007 playoffs—or if they play fewer than 10 playoff games in the 2007 playoffs—Simon will serve additional games at the start of next season to satisfy the minimum term of the suspension.

“The National Hockey League will not accept the use of a stick in the manner and fashion in which Mr. Simon used his Thursday night,” explained Colin Campbell, NHL Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations. “As a consequence of his actions, Mr. Simon has forfeited the privilege of playing in an NHL game again this season, regardless of how many games the Islanders ultimately play.”

Without question, the incident was an ugly one that deserved severe punishment. And in fact, Simon acknowledged as such on Saturday night.

“After watching the tape the morning after Thursday’s game, I was disgusted. There is absolutely no place in hockey for what I did,” Simon said in a statement released by the Islanders. “I want to apologize to Ryan Hollweg. I was grateful to learn that Ryan is okay and that he returned to the game… I want to apologize to my team and Islanders fans everywhere. My actions Thursday night played a major part in our team losing a crucial game. I also want to apologize to the National Hockey League for the damage I have caused this great game of ours.”

In looking back at the incident, it is certainly worthwhile to evaluate the event that preceded it, for it goes a long way towards explaining (while not justifying) what took place.

Simon was skating towards the boards, slowing down and getting ready for the puck to arrive. His body was turned at approximately a 45-degree angle to the boards when Hollweg came up behind him and hit him square on the left shoulder blade. The hit straightened Simon out, and he crashed face-first into the glass.

Some argue that Hollweg’s hit was perfectly clean, because it was delivered to Simon’s side rather than his back. But by the definition provided in the NHL’s rulebook, Hollweg’s hit should have earned him a boarding penalty.

The rule book clearly states: “A major or minor penalty…shall be imposed on any player who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently into the boards…when a major penalty is imposed under this Rule for a foul resulting in an injury to the face or head of the opponent, a game misconduct shall be imposed.”

Simon absorbed Hollweg’s hit, which caused him to suffer a concussion. He got up, likely in an altered state as a result of the impact with the boards. He looked around, and saw that the officials didn’t assess a penalty to Hollweg. And he decided to take matters into his own hands, swiftly and violently responding to Hollweg’s hit in a fashion that was completely inappropriate. Some hockey pundits have suggested that Simon should be subjected to criminal charges, but it’s clear that a plea of “temporary insanity” would (and should) be the plaintiff’s defense.

“I do not remember much about Thursday’s incident,” he said. “When I saw the tape on Friday morning, it explained a lot to me when I saw the look on my face after being hit into the boards. I was completely out of it. When I met with the media about 30 minutes later, I still was not feeling well. I met with our medical staff briefly Thursday night and underwent a series of tests on Friday afternoon. They have told me that I suffered a concussion when I hit the boards.”

To Simon’s credit, he took full responsibility for his actions, even in this sad context. “I need to make clear that this is not justification for the danger I put Ryan Hollweg in and the damage I have caused the game,” he said. “I understand disciplinary action will be taken…what hurts the most is knowing my actions will result in me losing the privilege of being in the Islanders lineup.”

At the NHL level, hockey is played at an incredibly fast speed. The athletes get bigger and bigger, and the collisions get harder and harder, yet the rink remains the same exact size. And even with the presence of four officials on the ice, numerous infractions go unpunished, many of them more deserving of penalty than the litany of obstruction calls away from the play that do get called. The crackdown on obstruction and interference has certainly sped up play, but as a result, it’s increased the speed of impact in each collision and it’s made the game even harder for the officials to follow.

The protective gear that NHL players wear today is like armor, but every player is protected to a different degree. Some wear flimsy shoulder pads that are 15 years old, others wear armor fit for a member of a bomb squad. Some wear visors to protect their face, while others wear loose-fitting helmets that provide only a bit more protection than an eggshell would.

When one player (be they from the college ranks or a European league) joins the NHL after having played his entire career wearing a full or half face shield, while another player came up through the Canadian junior system where he didn’t (until recently) have to wear a visor, those two players will have dramatically different assessments of risk with regard to high sticking.

Now, of course, this also does not justify what Simon did on Thursday night. But it explains a very difficult problem that exists in every NHL game, and it explains why an incident like this is probably a lot more unavoidable than observers would like to admit.

There’s also the matter of inconsistent discipline. When Canadiens forward Maxim Lapierre crashed the Senators’ Ray Emery’s goal crease back on February 10, Emery responded by smacking Lapierre in the face with his goalie stick. The action earned Emery a three-game suspension, though it probably carried a similar level of risk to Simon’s action.

The only differences, perhaps, were that Lapierre was wearing a visor (Hollweg wasn’t) and the amount of time that elapsed between Lapierre’s arrival and Emery’s swipe (approximately one second) was about one-third the time difference between Hollweg’s hit and Simon’s vicious retaliation.

Just under two weeks later, Emery’s Senators took on the Buffalo Sabres. Sens enforcer Chris Neil delivered a blindside hit to Sabres forward Chris Drury’s head, knocking the Buffalo star out of action for nearly two weeks. Neil was not penalized, nor suspended, for the hit.

Last weekend, Devils forward Cam Janssen lined up Maple Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle for a check, delivering a hard hit to Kaberle’s head over two seconds after the Leafs’ rearguard had released a pass. Kaberle crashed headfirst into the boards and suffered a concussion, an injury from which he still hasn’t recovered. Janssen was also given a three-game suspension, though his actions were similarly dangerous to Simon’s.

Would Simon have retaliated had he gotten up and seen that the official had whistled Hollweg for a boarding major? We’ll never know the answer to that question. But we do know that the officials cannot be expected to see every on-ice infraction, certainly not in real time. We know that every player chooses his own level of protection, from within a wide variety of options that range from highly protective to not very at all. And we know that when the league reviews these incidents, the penalties they levy do not seem to be very consistent.

Those who argue in favor of allowing the players to police themselves suffered a huge blow with this incident. The argument goes that the presence of enforcers makes the game safer for skill players, and that they provide a meaningful, effective deterrent against cheap shots and other unwanted violence. But Simon, a respected enforcer who would be one of those players responsible for policing, instead demonstrated that in the heat of the moment, he couldn’t be trusted to act rationally.

There isn’t a single working example of a society effectively policing itself, and there’s a good reason for that. In the heat of the action, it is clear that it is extremely difficult for NHL players to exercise the self-control needed to operate in a judicious manner. Simon’s act–much like Marty McSorley’s similar chop to the head of Donald Brashear in 2000–is but one more example of what can happen when emotions run over.

The only real solution is to mete out severe penalties for actions like Simon’s, in the hopes that they will provide the deterrent that is so clearly needed to prevent over-the-top violence. And in this case, by ending Simon’s suspension, the NHL has done just that. It is only unfortunate that they weren’t similarly heavy-handed with Emery, Neil, and Janssen.

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