A lot has been made of the recent Leafs-Sabres line brawl. It had it all, from John Scott jumping Phil Kessel, to a goalie fight between Ryan Miller and Jonathan Bernier, to David Clarkson’s automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to fight. When all the dust had settled, Kessel was suspended for the last three pre-season games for his battle axe attack on John Scott’s legs.
When 6’8″ tough guy Scott jumped 6’0″ sniper Kessel, the much smaller Maple Leaf made a relatively sane decision not to drop the gloves and try to fight. Instead, he made the controversial decision to use his stick as an axe, swinging wildly at Scott’s leg pads. He took several good swings, even after Scott had started fighting another Leaf coming to Kessel’s aid. On top of all this, when tempers began to cool back down, Kessel took the time to pick up his gloves and stick to then purposely antagonize Scott by spearing him.
The NHL’s decision to suspend Kessel for pre-season games goes against a couple of things that the NHL is trying to fix. First of all, Kessel does not miss any “meaningful” games. He does not lose any pay, nor does his team lose having him in important regular season games. A pre-season suspension has very little impact on the player or the team, both of whom should be disciplined for a player’s infractions. It doesn’t financially or otherwise penalize the player, nor does it send a strong message to either parties. Instead, the NHL should suspend the player for regular season games, however not as many as if it were pre-season games. In Kessel’s case, a 1 to 2 game suspension would have been adequate. By him missing regular season games, he is leaving his team mates without his services, something that would make the offending player feel like he is letting his team down due to his actions and suspension. What lesson is Kessel learning by missing meaningless games, some of which he would not have been in the line up in the first place? If the NHL wants to punish a player, PUNISH them. Don’t give out pre-season suspensions that mean nothing to the team or the player.
Second of all, the NHL is working very hard to promote attendance to pre-season games. Suspending superstars for pre-season games can only hurt attendance statistics, especially since roughly half the players in those games are not going to start the season in the NHL. Everybody saw the picture of the Florida Panthers’ pre-season game, where there more players than fans. If the NHL is trying to get people to go to pre-season games, having the “main attractions” suspended and out of the line up only hinders these attempts. It is very clear that there are several teams that are struggling to fill their arenas, and having superstars out of the line up won’t get any more butts in those seats. Pre-season games are even more difficult to sell to on-the-fence fans, given that they mean nothing in the standings. These games hold no real value except for getting players into game shape, so “robbing” a player of pre_season games through suspension is not worth the sacrifice of losing the fans that would come out to watch them play.
There is no doubt that Kessel’s second slash was excessive and warranted discipline. Regardless of the circumstances, using a stick like an axe is unacceptable. By being suspended for pre-season games, the NHL is basically giving both Kessel and the Maple Leafs a slap on the wrist. They may as well not have suspended him at all, since it would of had a similar impact. The NHL should focus on making better disciplinary decisions, starting with getting rid of pre-season suspensions. They are irrelevant and they can only hurt attendance records, something that several teams need to improve drastically.