There are certain kinds of things that result in suspensions in hockey that I’m pretty soft on. When Raffi Torres smoked Marian Hossa, I thought the league’s reaction was absurd.
The problem, to the extent that there is one, is a system of rules that renders guys fair game for a long time after they get rid of the puck. The problem is a mishmash rule about when you can hit a guy in the head. As long as hits like the Torres hit can be within a step of being legal, guys are going to miss their assessment of the line and cross it. When you draw these lines, you have to allow for some user error – it’s a fast game. Drawing the lines where the NHL has drawn them, you’re just begging for incidents like Torres on Hossa. The easy thing to do afterwards is to pretend that Torres is a really dirty player and that he always has been.
When Eric Gryba knocked Lars Eller out last year, I didn’t really have much of a problem with the hit:
It’s a fast game and things happen and when there’s a blurry dotted line between a legal and an illegal play, sometimes things are going to end up on the wrong side of the line. Suspending guys for that has always troubled me a little bit because, to a certain extent, that’s one of the risks that comes with playing hockey. (I’m pretty progressive on most hockey things and it’s fun being on the neanderthal side of the line on this).
Which brings us to Zack Kassian breaking Sam Gagner’s jaw:
What do we have? We have Kassian coming in for a hit, missing it, and swinging his stick blindly with enough force to break Gagner’s jaw. Which he did. This sort of thing reminds me of Marty McSorley on Donald Brashear. I’ve never entirely agreed with the judge’s finding with respect to McSorley:
He found himself gliding in from centre ice toward Brashear, sizing him up for possible ways to confront him. Brashear crossed directly in front of him, presenting an easy target. Brashear was the focus of all of McSorley’s and Boston’s frustrations. McSorley had to do something; he might still be able to start a fight. In the words of McSorley, “It has to be an instantaneous reaction.” He had an impulse to strike him in the head. His mindset, always tuned to aggression, permitted that. He slashed for the head. A child, swinging as at a Tee ball, would not miss. A housekeeper swinging a carpetbeater would not miss. An NHL player would never, ever miss. Brashear was struck as intended.
With the greatest of respect for Kitchen J., I don’t think he watches enough hockey. NHL players miss things all the time. It’s a game of seconds, of inches. The legal system’s the legal system and the NHL’s disciplinary system is the NHL’s disciplinary system though. I accept McSorley’s defence that he wasn’t trying to slash Brashear in the head but to me it’s sort of irrelevant and it should be to the NHL. McSorley was trying to do something in total violation of the rules, he screwed up and Brashear was badly injured. That’s different than a legal play gone wrong and it’s fair and sensible to impose a much higher onus on players trying to do something in violation of the rules to make sure it doesn’t go wrong.
Unlike Gryba and Torres, Kassian has no defence that he was trying to perform a legal act and botched it. He was swinging his stick dangerously. Taylor Hall was quoted as saying “When your stick is flailing around like that, it’s your fault” but with all due respect to Hall, that wasn’t a stick flailing incident. It was a stick swinging incident. A stick flailing incident is where you don’t have control of your stick and you accidentally catch a guy, like if you’re trying to lift a stick and miss. Legal plays gone wrong. You don’t tend to hear about broken jaws or bones after those.
This was a stick swinging incident. That’s an important distinction. Kassian committed an illegal play in a reckless fashion and broke Gagner’s jaw. The NHL should have absolutely zero tolerance for that. If I ran the league, that’s the sort of stuff that would draw the huge suspensions. This is the sort of stuff that you can get out of the game by absolutely crucifying people who transgress, unlike with legal plays gone wrong.
What do I expect the NHL to do? Well, the Canucks and Oilers play in their second game of the season on HNIC and the league doesn’t like bloodbaths on national TV as a rule. They don’t play for a while after that though. My guess? Two games. It should be something in double digits but for whatever reason, the league has historically cared more about stuff like some tomato can coming off the bench to look for another tomato can for a facepunching contest than it does about actual wildly dangerous and indefensible stuff like this stick swinging incident.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org