Throughout the whole "Head Shot" chaos in the NHL, the poster boy for the problem has been Penguins winger Matt Cooke. And deservedly so. Cooke's reckless play has jeopardized the health of other players, and needs to be curtailed. This is not an article in defense of Matt Cooke.
But I'm beginning to wonder why Philadelphia Flyers Captain Mike Richards isn't receiving the same treatment.
To adequately understand the scope of the comparison, we need to go back to the 2009-10 season.
This is the hit that truly galvanizes the head shot movement. Florida Panther winger David Booth skates towards the middle of the ice, when he collides with a streaking Mike Richards, who forearms him in the head/neck area. Booth never sees him coming and has no way to protect himself. He was knocked out before he ever hit the ice. Richards faced no suspension or discipline at all.
Fast-forward to March of 2010, later that season:
If Richard's hit was the one that truly started the head shot movement, Cooke's hit was the one that fast-tracked it. Again, Boston Bruin Marc Savard comes into the zone at center ice and attempts to throw a shot towards the net. Cooke comes across and decks Savard in the head in a very similar manner to how Booth was hit. Savard never stood a chance, and he too, was unconscious before he went to the ice. The only difference between this hit and the Booth hit is that Cooke was coming at Savard from behind (Savard is a lefty, Booth is a righty). However, it becomes a non-issue because both Booth's and Savard's heads were in very similar positions. Like Richards, Cooke faced no discipline for this hit.
The biggest difference between the two hits is, and I'm convinced that this is why Cooke is the poster child and not Richards, is that David Booth is fine. He's back to playing hockey at a high level. Savard is not. He attempted a comeback this season, but is a very different player, and given his age, may never play again. If the shoe was on the other foot, and it was Booth that had his career ended, the hockey world would look very different right now.
On to other instances:
February 2011: Matt Cooke boards Fedor Tyutin, gets 4 game suspension.
Stupid play all around. Tyutin looks back towards Cooke as he goes into the corner to retrieve the puck. Cooke then hits Tyutin from behind and up high, sending him into the boards. Tyutin ends up being fine, but that certainly doesn't take away from the fact that this is the type of hit that shouldn't happen. Most people end up agreeing with the four game suspension except Jeremy Roenick, who cries for a while on TV.
One month later, March 2011: Matt Cooke elbows Ryan McDonagh, gets a 10 game suspension + first round of the playoffs.
Zero excuse for this hit. Was it the most vicious elbow ever? No. But Matt Cooke knows his reputation, and needed to be a lot smarter than this. He clearly raises his elbow to hit McDonagh in the head. Like Tyutin, McDonagh is fine, but it's almost beside the point. Cooke gets a hefty penalty, now up to 16 games, including 6 playoff games thus far. Most people thought this would be the straw that broke the camels back. A hefty penalty, and a very deserved one.
Now the story turns back to Mike Richards, and this current playoff series with the Buffalo Sabres.
Game 4: Richards' elbow to Patrick Kaleta
This is pretty much as blatant as the McDonagh hit. Richards is digging for a puck along the boards, Kaleta comes in for a hit, and Richards throws his elbow up in Kaleta's face. Just as cowardly as Cooke's elbow. Richards gets a five-minute elbowing major for this hit, but faces no additional discipline.
Game 6: Richards' boarding of Tim Connolly
Yesterday, Richards unleashed the latest of his questionable hits, basically grabbing Sabres center Tim Connolly's nameplate and driving him into the boards. Connolly hits the boards with the crown of his helmet and falls to the ice. According to Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, Connolly is "not doing very good", and almost certainly won't play in Game 7. The NHL again did not hand out any discipline to Richards.
If you were trying to keep score, allow me to help. Matt Cooke and Mike Richards make three similar hits, and the suspensions go as follows:
Matt Cooke: 20/21 games, including 6/7 playoff games.
Mike Richards: 0 games
Now, when making this comparison, I'm obliged to recognize the fact that Cooke was also suspended for two games in November of 2009 after a hit to Rangers forward Artem Anisimov.
But it still begs the question, why does Richards continue to get off scot-free while Matt Cooke has been villefied? Is it because Richards isn't a repeat offender? Well of course he isn't! How can someone be a repeat offender if his dirty play is never punished? The NHL continues to hide behind the "repeat offender" cloak, in hopes that everyone forgets it and nobody asks too many difficult questions. I'm not saying that Richards should get suspended for double-digit games, but the NHL at least needs to acknowledge that this is a problem with him.
Until then, we'll just have to wait for his next victim.