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Marchand Suspended 5 Games: Did the NHL Hurt Itself With This Decision?

This week started off in rough fashion for the Bruins as disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan announced that Marchand’s hit on Sami Salo during Saturday's game warranted a five-game suspension for the young winger. Shanahan reasoned that because the shot was a dangerous, avoidable, predatory, from a repeat offender, and, at the end of the day, clipping. While others claim Marchand deserves the punishment and that the ruling is just, the call is still gutless. Beyond that, this ruling is the setup for horrible precedent. And as we all know, the league's actions going forward are to be performed in a manner that is set by the precedent it has made with prior cases.

Let's look at the precedent set here:

1. Marchand is a serious repeat offender. He's been suspended and fined multiple times. His reputation around the league is now worse (though if you were to ask fans of the Canucks they'd tell you he was already the worst offender in the league). For a kid who has come up in the past season and a half so strong and defined himself in the league by being an agitator as well as an offensive force this is disheartening. The league’s ruling forces Marchand into a position to either shape up or ship out; even if the ruling on the ice isn't right.

2. A player being injured on a play—regardless of whether the injury can be proven —now makes an infraction much more likely to result in suspension. I'm not claiming Salo does or doesn't have a concussion; nor do I wish injury on him or see him or anyone else get injured. I have a ton of respect for him and the class act he brings to the ice. The Vancouver organization’s attempts to aid Shanahan’s decision through news announcements over the past 3 days, however, are despicable. We saw the same thing with Ryan Miller and Buffalo earlier this season. If crying wolf becomes the norm then this league will have monumental issues going forward with credible judgments.

3. The more attention that the media gives to an incident, the more strict and agreeable with the general consensus the ruling has to be. We've seen guys that have played the game come out and talk about this hit and say it isn't the cleanest but it's not against the rules. We've then had media folk who only know the game from the sidelines scream that if Marchand gets let of the hook then he's getting away with treason. We have social networks blowing up with opinions on the matter mainly claiming the play is dirty and suspension-worthy (in the quality/pornography sense) without being able to say why. The reason they can't is because this wasn't clipping and it wasn't worthy of the call as the rules stand today. Their effect on this case was evident though; Shanahan had to put the book aside and go with what was in his gut and in his ear, regardless of whether it actually fit.

4. The rules of the league no longer need to come from or be clarified by the league's Competition Committee. This I'm sure will bring the greatest outcry as many believe this is clipping. If you're one of those people, skip this as we'll have to agree to disagree. Based on the evidence given so far, this hit does not fall into the category of clipping. Calling it clipping is a stretch and assumes that the refs got the calls right on Saturday, which we all know (including the refs) they didn't. Being able to pull a loose association or disregard the rule book completely makes Shanahan's role dangerously close to resembling the subjective league where the head of discipline was able to hand out the rulings he liked. In the best of cases this is a situation where the rules need greater clarification in order to ensure that a player is not inappropriately given a poor reputation, extra penalties, and financial loss. In the worst of cases, this situation is comparable to those previously expressed in our pre-suspension write up and isn't even worthy of a call with or without a rule change.

This precedent leads us to two saddening conclusions:

1. We're seeing the transition of the NHL game from a North American style of hockey to a European style of hockey. No longer will hitting, fighting or being hard-nosed describe the sport; they are to be replaced by working the referees, finesse games and the really thin guy from the original Nintendo Ice Hockey game. Brian Burke's comments regarding the endangered species known as the enforcer are foretelling: this game will no longer allow players to play the game as it has been for fear of being labeled and blacklisted. Instead of playing hard, taking a number, and getting your payback, or instead of having your enforcer make sure guys aren't taking liberties, we'll see a game closer to basketball or soccer where the league’s elite draw the call they want then put up record setting points for color commentators to gush over.

2. The role of media and social media in the sport of hockey is becoming a powerhouse in affecting how the league operates. Steps are being taken to move away from reviewing the game, dissecting the numbers, and making the best-guessed tweaks to build a quality product; rather, what we are seeing is a move towards taking popular opinion and using it as a means of deciding the results. What we have is the old Roman arena where fans, writers, and commentators give thumbs up or thumbs down to decide who lives and who dies.

Sadly, on this day their thumbs have pointed downwards—killing off the respect and credibility this league had worked so hard to build.