By Stu Hackel
The NHL Hockey Operations Department once again has failed to take a stand against willful hits to the head when it decided on Thursday not to suspend Boston’s Andrew Ference for this clear attempt to injure Montreal’s Jeff Halpern in Wednesday’s Game 7 between the Bruins and Canadiens. This continues the failure of leadership by the NHL in punishing intentional headshots and stains what has been an excellently played first round in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On the play, Halpern was skating deeper into the Bruins’ zone — near where Ference was standing — in anticipation of a pass from his teammate Lars Eller at the blueline as Montreal tried to cycle the puck down low in the zone. The pass was intercepted by Brad Marchand some 30 feet from where Halpern and Ference were and he skated the puck the other way. As Halpern went to turn and follow the puck, Ference leaned into Halpern and caused his hard-capped shoulder pads to make contact with his head, flattening him on the ice. This isn’t finishing a check or a hockey play. This is an attempt to injure.
Despite Bruins’ announcer Andy Brickley’s contention that “Halpern has to be aware of what’s going on” — putting the onus on the victim for the collision — the NHL recognized the true intent of the play. But the league did not take forceful action.
Here’s another view from Versus (and the CBC telecast had it the best, and their announcers saw the play for what it was and said so, but that’s nowhere on YouTube)
No penalty was called on the play but the fact that a disciplinary phone call did take place between the Ference and, probably, Hockey Operations Vice President Mike Murphy indicates the league recognized this was not a mere collision. (Senior Vice President Colin Campbell does not rule on disciplinary matters involving the Bruins since his son plays for Boston.)
But TSN reported on Thursday afternoon that no suspension would be forthcoming, which perhaps means a fine was levied against Ference. The league generally does not announce fines. The Bruins begin their second round series against Philadelphia on Saturday.
“Not losing Ference for any games is key for the Bruins,” wrote Douglas Flynn on the website of NESN, the Bruins television network. “Ference has been a steadying force on the blue line for Boston this season, especially in the first-round series with Montreal.”
“Andy said is that he just saw a player off his shoulder as he was moving, as he was looking up when he saw the turnover,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said of the play. “His motion and the player’s motion, they ran into each other.”
(Ference was also fined last week when he was caught on camera extending his middle finger to the crowd at the Bell Center after scoring a goal.
Afterward Ference denied he intended to make the gesture, saying, “I can assure you that’s not part of my repertoire. I don’t know if my glove got caught up. I can assure you, that’s not part of who I am or what I ever have been.”)
The NHL is reluctant to take strong disciplinary action against players during the playoffs, not wanting to take them from their teams at the most important time of the year. However, the league should be tougher, not more lenient, during the postseason. If you can get an important player on the opposing side off the ice or out of the lineup during a playoff series, it only helps your team’s chances. Halpern was the Canadiens’ best face-off man during the series, winning over 73 percent of his draws, and his line with Eller and Mathew Darche was highly effective in keeping the puck in Boston’s zone.
The common excuse used by the Hockey Ops group — and the general managers who guide their thinking — in their less-than-vigilant stance on headshots is that they want to preserve hitting in the game. How declining to seriously punish Ference for this sneaky play helps preserve legitimate hitting in the game is a huge mystery.
The apologists and defenders of the NHL’s laxity argue that punishing a wider variety of deliberate headshots beyond those narrowly defined as blindside or lateral by Rule 48 would result in some sort of “slippery slope” that could lead to a marked decrease in body contact and the game’s appeal. Campbell went so far as to state in a recent — and, at times, embarrassing — interview on TSN Radio (audio) that he was saving jobs in the media and throughout the hockey world with the way he does his job.
Instead, allowing hits like this to be punished by only a slight deduction from a player’s paycheck is what leads to a slippery slope, one of more dangerous play and more risk of injury in a league that makes big pronouncements on how it makes player safety a priority, but too often fails to back up its words with action.