Outta here.

Photographer: Claus Andersen/Getty Images

NHL Should Protect the Victims of Dirty Play

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh will sit out again Tuesday night, after having sustained an elbow to the head from Toronto Maple Leafs winger Leo Komarov last Thursday. It was only McDonagh's second game back from being sidelined with a concussion; thankfully, he hasn't sustained another one this time around. Both players now insist there wasn't intent to cause injury, but it raises the question of whether all sides' histories should be considered when the NHL doles out punishment.

A player becomes a target when he's already suffered an injury, especially one to the head. As we now know from neuropathologists who have studied football, chronic brain damage can occur even without a diagnosed concussion; sustained subconcussive hits to the head are often the cause. Hockey has escaped the sort of scrutiny directed at the NFL, due to the sport's relatively smaller profile and cultural significance. But the parallels are impossible to ignore, from both leagues' tendency to avoid the issue, to the insufficient safety measures meant to placate growing criticisms from players and fans, to the insistence by players themselves that such hits are simply "part of the game."

That last part may well be true. But so, too, is the complicity of the leagues in promoting it. Sportsnet, a Canadian broadcast partner of the NHL, has a series of video highlights called "Gotta See It," and has included both Wayne Simmonds' sucker punch to McDonagh earlier this month that caused the initial concussion, as well as Komarov's high elbow. It also happens in more subtle ways: The NHL failed to further discipline Simmonds, who was ejected from the Feb. 6 game, while Komarov was ejected but served only a three-game suspension.

McDonagh has put on his tough-guy hat, attributing the Komarov hit to the game's fast pace rather than bad intentions. He's "grateful and thankful" that he didn't sustain a second concussion, but the damage could already be done; at the very least, he'll be the most vulnerable player in the arena when he does return. Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has questioned the league's lack of discipline, both for Simmonds and Komarov. "It's safe to say there's some confusion the way things are handed out," Vigneault said, referencing the four-game penalty handed down to New Jersey Devils winger Bobby Farnham for a hit on  St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. After the hit by Simmonds, Vigneault also questioned whether the failure to further suspend him would have happened if the player he'd punched had been more prominent -- say, Sidney Crosby.

But you'd better believe that when he does return, McDonagh will have reached a level of prominence -- if, for nothing else, than for being an easy mark. And that's why when assessing punishment, the league's disciplinary arm should maybe consider not just the offending player's history, but also that of the injured. The NHL does a good job of attempting transparency, publishing videos explaining the rationale behind decisions regarding punishment and player safety, but sometimes they don't suffice. The league determined that Komarov had "ample time" to "deliver this hit in a legal fashion," negating McDonagh's own view of the situation.

Its second point of consideration was Komarov's lack of previous penalties: he's not a dirty player, and in 160 career games, he hadn't committed a similar offense. It's important to deter serial offenders and professional goons -- hi there, Chris Simon -- but it's just as necessary to protect players from becoming targets. The Bountygate scandal among the New Orleans Saints might have been exaggerated, but it did establish that players are at least aware of other players returning from injury and may act on that information. When a pattern emerges, it's time to start paying attention.

If the NHL is going to address its concussion problem, it needs to come to terms with the root causes of brain trauma. That starts with recognizing when a player might have a bullseye on his helmet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net