National Hockey League

NHL lets Koci and Ruutu off easy

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The NHL had a chance this week to send a message to its players about dangerous hits from behind, but as usual, the league failed to do so.

Colorado's David Koci and Ottawa's Jarkko Ruutu were the culprits, as they both delivered questionable checks just one day apart from each other. The league held disciplinary hearings for both incidents, but in the end decided to fine both players rather than handing out suspensions.

Koci's indiscretion came first when he drilled Washington's star defenseman Mike Green squarely in the numbers and sent him headfirst into the end boards during Tuesday's game in Colorado.

The hit came with the Avalanche trailing 5-0 late in the second period and Green, who had to be helped off the ice, did not return. The good news is that Washington is expected to have its top defenseman back in the lineup tonight.

The other scary check came the following night in Ottawa, as Ruutu drove a shoulder into Buffalo forward Patrick Kaleta's head, which in turn bounced off the side boards. Ruutu's hit, which came just 29 seconds into the second period, did not come directly from behind, but it's fairly obvious that Kaleta didn't see it coming and was therefore unable to protect himself.

Patrick Kaleta appears to be more seriously hurt with a neck injury.
Unfortunately, Kaleta appears to be more seriously hurt than Green with a neck injury. He isn't expected to play for Buffalo in Friday's home game against Toronto and the Sabres have stated that there is no timetable for his return at this stage.

Koci was given five minutes for boarding, five more for fighting Washington's John Erskine directly after the hit, and was also handed a game misconduct. Ruutu was whistled for a five-minute major for boarding as well, but for some reason wasn't hit with the game misconduct.

Perhaps the league felt that Koci's suspension for the remainder of Tuesday's game was enough punishment, but it's hard to buy that argument when watching the hit. Green had his body completely turned away when Koci plastered him into the wall, giving the Caps blueliner no chance to defend himself. Seems to me, that's exactly the type of check that the league needs to be tough on, the kind that could cause a serious injury because a player is in a prone position.

Also, the game situation that Koci's hit was delivered in should have led the NHL to require a suspension and not just a monetary sanction. After all, Koci is an enforcer who sees only a few minutes of ice time when he plays, and the fact that the hit happened while Colorado was down 5-0 couldn't have simply been a coincidence.

It's also surprising that Koci wasn't suspended when one considers the stature of Green as a rising star and one of the league's best offensive defensemen. In a perfect world, whether or not a star player is the recipient of a dirty hit should have little to do with the business of handing out suspensions, but it often does in the NHL.

In Ruutu's case, the hit may not have been so clearly from behind, but the past history of Ottawa's pest, especially against the Sabres, should have been enough to warrant a suspension. Just last season, Ruutu was given a two-game ban for biting the finger of Buffalo forward Andrew Peters, an incident that Ruutu denies ever happened.

Maybe Ottawa's notorious forward was let off the hook because Kaleta, like Ruutu, has a reputation as a player who walks a fine line when it comes to the NHL rulebook. Hopefully that wasn't the case, because any issues with how Kaleta has conducted himself in the past should have nothing to do with him being protected from cheap shots like any other player.

The same consideration should go for Ruutu as well, if he should someday find himself blind-sided by a retaliatory hit from a Buffalo player. And really, what is the incentive for a Sabres player to not deliver such a hit since they must feel as though the league failed in its duty to protect one of their teammates.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Senior VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell have said that the league is working on curbing the amount of dangerous checks in today's game, but why then do they so often seem to shy away from handing out any type of meaningful suspensions? It's almost as if the benefit of the doubt is being given to the player who is administering the hit, and not to the victim.

Nobody really knows for sure if stricter sanctions for hits like the ones Koci and Ruutu were guilty of this week would result in a drop-off in reckless play, but the league doesn't even seem willing to find out.

It seems Bettman and Campbell are willing to let boys be boys until somebody is seriously hurt. Even then, the league would probably just make a scapegoat out of one person rather than take responsibility for its role in nurturing the lack of respect for other players that is displayed on NHL rinks these days.

Hopefully, it doesn't take a severe injury to change the way the NHL handles these situations, but unfortunately, with the way the league has handled suspensions recently, that might wind up being the case.

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Dan Di Sciullo

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