People asked in the aftermath of the Jesse Boulerice crosscheck to the jaw of Ryan Kesler, 'will they ever learn?' and the answer is: Some never will. How else to explain that exactly one day after Boulerice's cheap shot to Kesler's face, which resulted in a 25-game suspension Friday, there was another less-publicized incident in the Nashville Predators-Phoenix Coyotes' game, featuring superpest Jordin Tootoo, another player who seems to get in the middle of these things every year?
On the play in question, Tootoo caught the Coyotes' Daniel Winnik in the face with a shoulder check that — if nothing else — should have been called charging. With Winnik on the ice, his Coyotes' teammate Craig Weller then clothes-lined Tootoo in retaliation and received a match penalty for his troubles.
Tootoo played the innocent afterwards, claiming he delivered a nice clean check. Right. Sure. Nor was there any defence for Weller's response either. Perhaps on a different night, it wouldn't have caused a ripple either, but with the focus and attention of everyone in the NHL on blows to the head, here were two in a span of about five seconds which once again, demonstrated the reckless disregard of one player for another — and the fact that in the heat of battle, stuff happens.
More and more, it makes you realize that the answer doesn't lie strictly with the players themselves. Many prominent NHLers — none of them shrinking violets — spoke out in the aftermath of the Steve Downie hit and again after the Boulerice incident about their collective desire to eliminate head shots from the game.
Their feeling reflects a majority view - that there are just too many NHLers leaving the ice, with their brain cells unnecessarily scrambled, because a handful of their peers genuinely believe that what they're doing is perfectly acceptable within the culture that exists in today's NHL.
And probably it was, once upon a time. There are, however, signs, that the NHL is trying to change that mindset, one suspension at a time — the Boulerice suspension ties with Chris Simon for the longest in history, relating to an on-ice incident.
Maybe that approach will eventually work too.
But the league could fast-track the process by extending the discipline to the respective teams as well. Fines to the club, suspensions for the coach - those sorts of penalties might encourage teams to think twice about employing players who haven't yet figured out that the culture of head-hunting is going the way of the dodo.
The simplest solution might even be the least complicated — simply prevent a team from replacing a suspended player in the line-up.
Let's use the Philadelphia Flyers as an example. Currently, the Flyers have two players under suspension, Downie (for the pre-season hit on the Ottawa Senators' Dean McAmmond) and now Boulerice. The Flyers tried to circumvent the terms of Downie's 20-game suspension by assigning him to their American Hockey League affiliate, only to have the AHL close the loophole by suspending him themselves for a month. In all probability, they would have tried something similar with Boulerice, who has played more games in the minors (243) than in the NHL (165) since turning pro a decade ago (after a controversy-filled junior career in the Ontario Hockey League).
But what if the Flyers actually had to play two men short during the terms of Downie's and Boulerice's suspensions, dressing only 16 skaters as opposed to 18? That would greatly limit coach John Stevens' flexibility; it would have a tangible impact on the organization and its day-to-day operations; and it would do more than just punish the guilty players.
Suddenly, a team thinking of employing a Boulerice or a Downie type would need to weigh the risks against the rewards of doing so and just might conclude that it isn't worth it anymore — not if they could find themselves one, or in Philadelphia's case, two line-up spots short per game for an extended period of time.
Flyers' general manager Paul Holmgren was saying this week how the pair of suspensions "makes things tricky for the roster." Imagine how tricky things would become if his coach could only dress five defencemen and 11 forwards — or six defencemen and just 10 forwards — while his suspended players cool their heels on the sidelines.