NHL gets Jovanovski suspension right

Don't skate with your head down. Bad things will happen.

If you've ever played a single shift of competitive contact ice hockey, that is one of the first lessons you are taught. You either learn that lesson from your coaches... or from the little birdies that circle your head after you get destroyed by an opponent with better situational awareness than you have.

That's why some Phoenix Coyotes fans are peeved today that Ed Jovanovski will be missing the next two NHL games for the team.

But with all due respect to my fellow fans, I think they need to do what Jovo himself has to do - suck it up and take it like a man. (Even the women.)

In Monday night's game against the Minnesota Wild, Jovanovski caught Wild forward Andrew Ebbett skating into the offensive zone with his head down. As Ebbett swept towards the right half-boards, Jovo skated to intercept. The big Coyotes blueliner caught Ebbett with his forearm and left glove hand smack in the head, and Ebbett crumpled to the ice with blood flowing from a glove-induced cut. Ebbett would get back to his feet but stumble around the ice until the referee's whistle about twenty seconds later.

If you haven't seen the hit itself, here it is:


Now, it's pretty clear that Ebbett had his head down and was more concerned about his skating than the rather large Coyote curling on a collision course with him. There should be no question about what Ebbett deserved for his inattention - the euphemism is "getting rubbed out," but it really means being suitably destroyed by a hard check.

It's pretty obvious that Jovanovski got the job done. What's at issue is the tools he used and how he used them.

Jovo apologists naturally believe that the smaller Ebbett's size was the reason why Big Ed's forearm connected with the Minnesota forward's face (the argument being that Jovo would have to be on his knees to deliver a body check on a guy that small). There's enough gray area in the height differential, they say, to make the hit at least questionable instead of the cheap shot that it obviously was.

The referees apparently agreed, because Jovanovski didn't get penalized at all for the play. Some Coyotes fans believed that the non-call proved that the hit wasn't dirty (although the idea that a non-call should indicate that a hit is clean is an ironic one, considering the hue and cry over hits like Patrick Kaleta's destruction of Petr Prucha which led to no penalties or suspensions for Kaleta but drew an instigator and misconduct for Martin Hanzal, who fought Kaleta after the hit).

But, for once, Colin Campbell and the League of Extraordinarily Subjective Gentlemen that make up the NHL disciplinary office got the post-game call right. The suspension was the right call because head shots like Jovo's are a completely unnecessary and hazardous part of the game of hockey and should be punished quickly and decisively. The idea that head shots are unavoidable is ridiculous and hockey players know it - they simply take advantage of the erroneous fan sentiment to the contrary and the historic subjectivity of the league to get away with them (see: Mike Richards and David Booth).

This is not to say that the league should take physicality out of the game. A head-shot-free NHL would simply require players to modify their aim a bit. And that's the truth, no matter what the hysterical traditionalist lobby would have you believe. More truth? Head-shotting is the lazy player's way of body checking. It is a cheap facsimilie of a hockey play that once was the prime method of separating a player from the puck. A head shot is as lazy and reprehensible for players who want to play the game right as it would be for a skater to skate with his head down or admire a pass crossing the offensive blue line.

If there is a reason for Coyotes fans to be outraged at the NHL for Jovanovski's suspension, it should be because the league still applies arbitrary and subjective criteria to head shots instead of a consistent and serious penalty for the offense - in other words, that Jovo should (rightly) be penalized and others are (wrongly) left untouched. The fact that the NHL does not take decisive unilateral action only serves to make the problem worse - leading fringe players to try and get their names out on ESPN, TSN, and YouTube by head-shotting an opponent and thereby raising their profile, or more "mainstream" players to do so to create a reputation of toughness in the league that will help them when contract negotiations are up. In other words, as long as there is no concrete and devastating penalty for head-shotting, it will remain a viable (and, in some cases, unpunished) course of action for players.

Fortunately for the Coyotes, they can play and win with Jovanovski out of the lineup. So fans shouldn't worry too much about the effects of Big Ed's suspension. But even if we had to roll with someone like, say, David Hale or Matt Jones on the blueline as a result, I would think that the bigger issue would be what we would have to live with if Jovo got away with a cheap shot. The Coyotes are already under the gun because of the NHL's ownership and the attitude towards our market - adding "cheap-shotting" to the list of our perceived crimes against hockey is something we could live without.

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