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Ovechkin suspension underlines NHL predicament

Chicago Blackhawks' Brian Campbell, left, talks to a team trainer after being knocked down by Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Sunday.

Nam Y. Huh/Nam Y. Huh/AP

Nothing quite illustrates the NHL's supplementary discipline quandary better than what happened in Sunday's game between its two best teams.

Early in the first period of a nationally televised game, the Washington Capitals' uber-star Alex Ovechkin gave the Chicago Blackhawks' Brian Campbell an unnecessary shove about 10 feet away from the boards. Campbell, who'd just moved the puck under Ovechkin's relentless forecheck, lost his footing and crashed shoulder-first into the boards, rolling over in obvious pain.

Preliminary diagnosis: Broken collarbone.

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Campbell will probably miss the rest of the regular season. Ovechkin received a boarding major on the play; was ejected from the game; and on Monday, received a two-game suspension from Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations for what was described as a "reckless" hit.

Predictably, however, when the question - dirty hit or not? - came up in the immediate aftermath of the game, the respective coaches saw it in two completely different ways. Ovechkin's coach, Bruce Boudreau, defended his player's action and concluded that sometimes, people forget how strong Ovechkin is. His opposite number, Chicago Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville, viewed it as "a tough hit, a dangerous hit" - and the Blackhawks only question wasn't if Ovechkin would get suspended, but for many games he might be out.

What a can of worms on so many different fronts.

First, there is the perception that a double standard applies when it comes to NHL disciplinary matters - and that someone of Ovechkin's stature gets far more leeway than a thug whose primary role is to go out and wreak havoc on an opponent.

Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis did the league no favors on this front either, by the way. In Ted Take's, Leonsis's daily blog, he drew a comparison between last week's controversial Matt Cooke-Marc Savard incident - in which Cooke got off scot-free for a hit to Savard's head - and the Ovechkin play on Campbell. Leonsis wrote: "Matt Cooke didn't get suspended or a penalty called on his hit last week, but Alex Ovechkin the league's MVP did on that play? I don't get it."

See, there's the first part of the problem summed in a nutshell. By describing Ovechkin as the league's MVP in that sentence, Leonsis is tacitly implying that there should be a separate standard for superstar players. Otherwise, why mention Ovechkin's achievements in the NHL. It is as if his resume should somehow protect him, which is false reasoning.

Justice, even NHL style, is supposed to be blind.

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Even so, what Ovechkin did was not nearly as egregious as Cooke's action. Cooke took a bead on Savard's head and leveled him deliberately, escaping punishment on a technicality - that the play is currently legal by NHL rule.

Ovechkin's play could more fairly be described as careless and unnecessary. It is also patently against the rules as they are currently written, and falls into the category of something the NHL has tried to wean out of the game for years, the hit from behind. Still, the broad range of opinions about just how bad it really was illustrates how much of a gray area can exist on any given play - and how difficult it is to develop that one-size-fits-all disciplinary standard that everybody wants from Campbell, the NHL's beleaguered disciplinary czar.

Discipline is rarely ever as simple as applying an apples-to-apples standard to two distinct plays.

Most times, it is apples to oranges to pears to grapes. The Canadiens' Max Lapierre was guilty of something roughly similar on the San Jose Sharks' Scott Nichol in early March, but it was probably twice as bad. That play cost him four games. Accordingly, no one should be surprised that Ovechkin sits for two. The nuances of every questionable play vary enough from one to the next that it can create a maddeningly difficult process for the decision makers. Solomon never had it like this.

In all likelihood, the deciding factor for Campbell the disciplinarian was that Campbell the player was vulnerable and not in a position to protect himself on the play. Ovechkin didn't need to push off at that precise moment because the puck had already been moved. Ovechkin did it anyway because it is his nature is to make an aggressive play whenever possible; that's what makes him the player he is, one of the NHL's best.

Still, that's three times already this season Ovechkin has been ejected from a game - once back on Nov. 25 against Buffalo for boarding the Sabres' Patrick Kaleta; and then again, later that same week, for kneeing the Carolina Hurricanes' Tim Gleason. Ovechkin received a two-game suspension for the latter infraction; and on a technicality, he missed getting an automatic one-game suspension for the hit on Campbell. Under NHL rules, once 41 games pass between one boarding major and another, the slate is wiped clean. Sunday's game against the Blackhawks happened to be Game 42.

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In all the discussion about head shots that dominated the NHL agenda last week, one point consistently came up, from both hawks and doves - that only a handful of players are responsible for the vast majority of the questionable (and potentially) suspension-worthy hits that occur in the game; and they fall into the repeat-offender category. The conundrum, for the NHL, is that one of its shining lights also just happens to be one of those players. That will cause a lot of sleepless nights for Colin Campbell as he riffs on the question that first came up in The Sound Of Music: How do you solve a problem like Ovechkin?

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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