TORONTO - Steve Downie's NHL debut has been put on hold.
The NHL suspended the Philadelphia Flyers rookie forward for 20 games Friday for his hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond in an exhibition game this week.
"(Downie) crossed the line, and he crossed the line in a whole-heartedly way," Colin Campbell, the NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, said during a conference call.
McAmmond suffered a concussion as a result of the hit and was taken off the ice on a stretcher during the second period of the pre-season game Tuesday night.
"It's a hit that, as soon as you see it happen live . . . you think, this is going to be a bad one," Campbell said.
The five-foot-10, 192-pound Downie received a match penalty, meaning he was automatically suspended indefinitely pending a review.
"I'm disappointed with the outcome," Downie said. "But I'm going to take this in a positive way, work hard, get in better shape and be prepared for when the suspension is over."
Downie said after the Flyers 7-5 loss to Washington on Friday that he thought he delivered a clean hit.
"My game is hitting and finishing checks," Downie said. "I'm just trying to earn a spot on a roster. It's part of my game and I apologize for him getting hurt. I thought I got him clean. Unfortunately he hit the boards after."
Downie, 20, wasn't expected to make the Flyers' roster this season. However, that was before the club sustained injuries to forwards Scottie Upshall, R.J. Umberger and Joffrey Lupul.
If Downie is cut by the Flyers, he would be automatically ineligible to play for the team's minor league affiliate, though an AHL spokesman said Friday that the league could review the case.
If he starts the season with the Flyers and serves the full 20 games, he will be eligible to return Nov. 23 against Washington. The next night, the Flyers face the Senators.
Senators general manager Bryan Murray supported the NHL's decision.
"The primary concern of our organization was, and continues to be, the health of Dean McAmmond," Murray said in a statement. "We feel the number of games of the suspension is appropriate, and the NHL has sent the correct message to address the severity of hits to the head like this one."
"I feel the ruling is strong enough to prevent these things from happening in the future," he said. "At this point, the NHL needs to a make a statement to try to protect players, and I hope that a suspension of this length will do that successfully."
The incident was a big blow to McAmmond, who has a history of concussions and was knocked out of last year's playoffs after taking a hit to the head from Anaheim defenceman Chris Pronger. Pronger received a one-game suspension for the hit.
Campbell said Downie's hit met the four requirements for a stiff punishment: the head was intentionally targeted; Downie launched himself by leaving his feet to hit McAmmond in the head area; the hit was delivered to an unsuspecting opponent; and the lateness of the hit.
"My reaction is that it seems like a lot of games, but Colin Campbell is in a very difficult position and we respect his position and his judgment in this case," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren told The Associated Press. "We will live with it.
"I was with Steve during the hearing and was with him after the verdict. He is very upset and understandably so. He understands the ramifications and he is prepared to live with this decision."
Flyers all-star forward Simon Gagne called the penalty "unfair."
"I've seen worse in the past and the league was a lot easier on guys," Gagne told the AP. "If Steve's the first guy to have to take all those games for it, hopefully the league's going to be consistent if something like that happens in the future. I hope they will be severe like they are with Steve. I hope Steve's not going to be the only guy."
Downie and McAmmond spoke by telephone earlier this week, with the Flyers player formally apologizing to the Senators forward.
Back in March, forward Chris Simon of the New York Islanders was suspended 25 games for his two-handed stick attack to the face of Ryan Hollweg of the New York Rangers.
Other suspensions of at least 20 games include: Boston's Marty McSorley in Feb. 2000, for knocking out Vancouver's Donald Brashear with a stick-swinging hit (23 games); Tampa Bay's Gordie Dwyer (23 games) for abusing officials and coming out of the penalty box to fight in an exhibition game in 2000; and Washington's Dale Hunter (21 games) for a blindside check of Pierre Turgeon of the N.Y. Islanders after a goal in a 1993 playoff game.
Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi, Chicago's Tom Lysiak and Phoenix's Brad May all served 20-game suspensions.
Downie was a first-round draft pick of OHL's Windsor Spitfires and, ultimately, the Flyers (29th overall in the '05 NHL Entry Draft). He was a fan favourite in Windsor, Ont., until a much publicized run-in with teammate Akim Aliu led to suspensions to both players and coach Moe Mantha, who was ultimately fired. Downie left the club and demanded to be traded and was dealt to the Peterborough Petes.
Downie helped Canada capture last year's world junior hockey championship in Sweden, but throughout the tournament was mentioned prominently in OHL trade talk. On Jan. 8, the Petes sent Downie to the Kitchener Rangers for Yves Bastien and three second-round draft picks.
While Campbell said he was aware of his Downie's past behaviour, but did not hold it against him because the hits weren't in the NHL.
"When it comes to our league, he has a clean slate," Campbell said. "We do not consider what he does in any other league."
Downie will forfeit US$63,101.60 in salary.
-With files from The Associated Press.