One of the few nice things about a minor penalty, like a hooking call, is the duration is always a given.
The hook could be a minor infraction or a bold water-skiing-like take down, and either way, the responsible party is always going to get two minutes.
It’s simple, yet effective.
There’s no judgement required. Officials don’t need to determine intent or severity. Something is either a hook or it isn’t. If it’s a hook, the penalty is always two minutes.
The system works for players, too. They know the consequence for getting called for a hook is always going to be two minutes. Smart players will assess the on-ice situation, and risk a hook, knowing their team can kill a penalty for two minutes. Smart players will also be mindful of a hook, knowing their team’s penalty kill hasn’t been great, or that their team is down and can’t afford to waste time on a kill.
Whatever a player decides, that kind of planning is possible because a player always knows the penalty for a hook. They don’t have to worry about being called for a 30-second penalty or a three-minute one, depending upon what the official thought of the hook.
So why not extend that model to more severe penalties? Why not come up with a consistent set of penalties for anything deemed a headshot?
NHL GMs are still trying to figure out what to do about headshots in the game and want to broaden the definition of what a headshot is.
That’s fine. A definition is great. But until there’s a standard punishment for taking a headshot against an opponent, players are going to risk them.
Aaron Rome famously got four games against Nathan Horton during the Stanley Cup finals. But most people expected a shorter suspension. But what if the first headshot, no matter who committed it, resulted in an automatic four-game suspension? And what if the automatic suspension dramatically increased for each subsequent infraction, perhaps with a reset after a certain number of games without a headshot?
Players would probably be more mindful, knowing a questionable hit could remove them from the game for at least four games, with no discretion on the length of the punishment.
Does anyone think Rome would have made that play against Horton if he knew it would cost him four games during the finals?
Now I’m not saying that Rome lined up Horton, thought about the odds of a short suspension, and then decided to make the hit. But if the NHL had a consistent punishment structure for headshots, Horton would have known exactly what he was risking by making that hit.
With the current punishment structure, players don’t think about bad hits because there’s no way to predict what kind of punishment a bad/questionable hit will draw. The league considers so many variables, players just can’t predict if a hit (or bite) will be ignored, will get a slap on the wrist, or will be severely punished.
The ambiguity of the punishment process is also a distraction for players. The Canucks not only had to deal with the fallout from Rome’s hit, but also had to contend with the extensive media coverage of his punishment and the media/fan debate over if the punishment was too severe.
The Rome hit and punishment was also a distraction for the Bruins. Not only did they lose a strong player, but they also had to address the punishment and it’s fairness. Obviously, it wasn’t too much of a distraction Wednesday night, but it still meant a team playing for the Stanley Cup had to think about something other than the next game.
A set punishment structure would have avoided some of that drama. Once it had been decided Rome’s hit was a headshot, everyone would have known exactly what punishment he was receiving. It’s the same reason there’s no debate about if the punishment for a hook or a cross-check is fair or unfair. It’s neither and it’s both. It’s two minutes.
If the NHL is serious about cracking down on headshots, it’s time for a set punishment structure that only hinges on if a hit was a headshot. If it was, the punishment is dispensed. And the punishment is a set progression, with increased suspensions for repeat offenders.
An unintentional headshot is just as dangerous as a deliberate one. The NHL’s punishment structure would reflect that simple truth.