In suspending Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan three games for a late and blindside hit to the head of Ducks forward Dan Sexton, the NHL declared it is serious about punishing dangerous hits to the head.
Sanctioning Doan, known as rugged but clean, was meant as a warning to fourth-liners and superstars that NHL justice will be blind.
It's a bold and overdue statement. And it must become an enduring benchmark that leaves no room for favoritism or inconsistent reasoning that has eroded the league's credibility.
Doan's open-ice, neutral-zone hit after Sexton released a pass during the third period of the Ducks' 3-2 victory Sunday wasn't penalized by the referees, but the NHL can review any play and impose supplementary discipline. Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations, said he and fellow executives who monitor every game debated the hit when it was delivered. That Sexton wasn't injured was "fortunate" but beside the point.
"This is a very difficult call to assess live as we don't want the referees guessing," Campbell said via e-mail. "Late and to the head from the blind side are plays we are attempting to extinguish in the game today."
Ducks General Manager Bob Murray declined to comment on the play or on Doan's second-period check of rookie Cam Fowler, which sent the precocious defenseman face-first into the boards. Fowler broke his nose but is probable for Wednesday's game at Columbus, which opens a four-game trip.
Doan's hit on Fowler, though painful, was a hockey play: Fowler had the puck on the rush and appeared to lose an edge as he was hit. Doan's hit on Sexton was after the play and reckless.
If the NHL maintains its promise, Doan's punishment will be a meaningful deterrent. That's a big "if." But there's no turning back from this standard now.
Hopes rise again in the desert
The Coyotes have been down this road before.
They've seen a prospective owner appear on the horizon with the promise of financial rescue — or in the case of Jim Balsillie, a relocation — only to have the deal fall apart.
That's why General Manager Don Maloney, who has done an outstanding job in the midst of chaos, was cautiously optimistic after officials in Glendale, Ariz., announced last week that they had reached an agreement in principle with Chicago investment mogul Matthew Hulsizer on a new lease for the team at Jobing.com Arena.
Maloney, voted the NHL's top general manager by his peers last season, said he met Hulsizer during the Coyotes' rookie camp for "general, getting-to-know you" conversations and has maintained contact with Hulsizer and the rest of the group that has proposed to buy the club from the NHL.
"They certainly seem to be enthusiastic and bullish on Phoenix as a hockey market and understand its challenges, but it's all good," Maloney said.
"We've done this now three or four times. It's encouraging, though. We know that we can make it work in Phoenix. We have to have a good product and I think having an owner in place will help as much the fan base as the corporate support — the suites, the revenues. We've had a lot of very positive feedback from the corporate community in the area, but there's this hesitation: 'Well, am I going to invest if the team is not going to be here? Am I really going to write a check?' "
The NHL's preference is to keep the team where it is, with a more favorable lease.
"Mr. Hulsizer, the City and the League intend to work closely together through the NHL's ownership approval process, and then to close the sale transaction and to thereafter transition the ownership of the club to Mr. Hulsizer as quickly and efficiently as possible," Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner, said via e-mail.
The uncertainty surrounding the team has contributed to a huge erosion of the season-ticket base. Maloney wouldn't say what it is, but it reportedly might be around 1,800. The Coyotes sold out their final four regular-season games last season to finish with an attendance average of 11,989. They also sold out all 17,378 seats for four playoff games.
The Coyotes are heavily promoting their 16 Saturday home games. Maloney said 95% of the tickets to last Saturday's game were sold, as opposed to the 50% giveaway rate at last season's home debut. If new owners bring new stability, fans might return.
"As far as we're concerned, we know we have to do our job and put a good product on the ice," Maloney said. "I'm really encouraged in talking to them. They seem like a passionate, bright, energetic group that has some business savvy behind them, and hopefully we can make this work."