As many of you have noticed I haven't written a serious piece about hockey in almost a year. Rather than writing a hard-hitting expose like Kevin Power and Dig Deep did, I'm writing a serious article for my first one back.
Patrick Kaleta was suspended five games for this hit on Brad Richards. I'd like to make it one hundred percent clear that I think Kaleta was either suspended the right amount, or too few games for his horrible hit on the Rangers alternate captain. That being said, people have suggested that players like Kaleta need to be outlawed from the NHL all together.
It's a great idea, banning the "scum" players of the NHL, but it will never happen. Each team employs a player like Kaleta (including the New York Rangers, who pay Arron Asham's contract) to protect the stars of their team from having to get involved in potentially dangerous situations, like fights or scrums after the whistle is blown. There's a reason we rarely see Marian Gaborik getting involved in scrums after the whistle, yet we almost always see Arron Asham or Stu Bickel getting involved.
Each team feels that they need to have a player on their team for this purpose, as well as to serve as a fighter if their team needs a pick me up. If the NHL bans fighting, it would be a solid first step towards outlawing Kaleta-like players. Still, that is very unlikely to happen, and even if it does Kaleta-like players will likely be employed to participate in post-whistle scrums and protecting players from big hits. A player like Luca Sbisa (completely random example) wouldn't try a potentially dirty hit on Sidney Crosby (again, random) if he knew Matt Cooke was there to return the favor, but if Cooke wasn't on the Penguins, he would be more likely to try that hit, knowing the retribution would be coming from the likes of Paul Martin instead.
There is a cycle in the NHL currently that will almost definitely not be stopped. Every team has their enforcers to save themselves from the other teams' enforcers. Unless every team drops their enforcers at once, there will not be any teams completely abandoning the idea of an enforcer. Players like Trevor Gillies are out of the NHL because General Managers are getting smarter and understanding that players can put lives in danger and major penalties are not helpful to their teams.
So, why doesn't the NHL just make illegal hits horrible for the team that gets them? Even worse than now?
Simple, the reward outweighs the risk for the teams employing these players. Fights can pump up the teams and their respective crowds, leading to comebacks. For every illegal hit that causes a major there are tons of legal hits and legal post-whistle scrums that protect the star players of the teams. Even if a major was a 20 minute powerplay (a completely impossible penalty to enforce) teams would not simply drop their players for the one penalty, nor would the players change the way they play.
These players are given jobs because they are strong, willing to take matters into their own hands, and willing to do anything for their teams. Sometimes this results in horrible decisions like the one Kaleta made Sunday night, and sometimes this leads to great moments like Derek Boogaard's goal against the Capitals back in the day. Believe it or not the players do not wish to kill each other, they just wish to keep their jobs. Kaleta risked his job by hitting Richards from behind, and while not sounding apologetic, he will continue to be employed for his positive attributes. Kaleta can fight, kill penalties, and protect his teammates. Unfortunately for us, these attributes make him good enough to play in the NHL.
That, folks, will never change.