Last night, Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin returned to action after serving a two-game suspension for an illegal hit he laid on the Carolina Hurricanes' Tim Gleason. While it is good to see a superstar like Ovechkin finally serve some time for bending and breaking the rules, his suspension sheds light on the NHL's spotty discipline policy.
During the Capitals' Nov. 30 game against the Hurricanes, Ovechkin took out Gleason with a knee-on-knee hit in the first period, sending both players down to the ice and injuring Ovechkin. For the NHL, this was a double-whammy of bad news.
First, its golden-boy star was potentially hurt for a long time (although it turns out the injury was mild), as he couldn't put pressure on the knee as he skated off. But more importantly, that same golden boy was injured while delivering a dirty hit in which he led with his leg, endangering both Gleason, who was also hurt, and himself.
The league had to face one of its biggest current discipline problems: its major inconsistency in suspending players, especially when it comes to superstars. And in the NHL, superstars don't come any bigger than Ovechkin.
A day after the hit, word came down from the league that Ovechkin would be suspended for two games, and although many analysts were happy to see him receive a well-deserved suspension, it was not harsh enough. The NHL should have made more of an example out of Ovechkin and given him a punishment to show that no player, regardless of how much they improve the sport's image, will be allowed to tarnish it with illegal play.
Because he was hurt on the play, Ovechkin probably would have missed one if not both of those two games anyway, something that certainly takes away the suspension's power. But even if he wasn't injured, the nature of the hit and Ovechkin's career of questionable plays warrant further punishment.
Hits like the one he had on Gleason are, regrettably, an extension of Ovechkin's ""bad boy"" mystique. The seemingly carefree way Ovechkin plays and the same unpolished demeanor that makes him such a fan favorite are the kinds of things that tick off not just hockey purists, but also fellow players.
I have no problem with the way Ovechkin celebrates or the way fans who couldn't give a crap about hockey before a few seasons ago love him so much. But when he starts endangering other players, ""carefree"" turns to ""reckless,"" and the league must draw the line.
If this were the first time Ovechkin had thrown a dirty hit, I could forgive the NHL for handing down a light punishment or none at all. But while it is the first time he has been suspended for it, it certainly wasn't Ovechkin's first offense. There is no shortage of other examples of times when Ovechkin has delivered hits that could be seen as illegal, and the NHL has to show that they will not allow that to continue.
Ovechkin should have been suspended for five games, the same punishment given to Georges Laraque for a similar hit on Niklas Kronwall, but was not because of his superstar status. Clearly, the league and many fans have no problem with Ovechkin's more harmless antics, but when he starts endangering players with dirty hits, they must come down as hard on him as they have on less well-known players.
One of the NHL's biggest faults is its much-maligned, inconsistent suspension policy and the preferential treatment it seems to give to its biggest stars. If Ovechkin were some unknown third-line forward for the Capitals, he could have never gotten away with a small punishment for a hit like that. But because of the notoriety he's brought to the sport and his international fame, he can cross the line and not face a very harsh punishment from the league.
Yes, Alex Ovechkin has done some great things for hockey in his years in the NHL, but that is no excuse for playing dirty. The league must drive home the point that he can celebrate as much as he wants, but if he continues using illegal and dangerous hits he will face the same repercussions as everyone else.
How do you think the NHL should have handled Ovechkin's suspension? E-mail Nico at email@example.com.