In his five-year OHL career defenceman Tim Billingsley had only been suspended once – back in September 2008.
He was handed that five-game ban for a check to the head of an opponent during a game against the Peterborough Petes. In his combined 265 OHL games on the blue line, he has a grand total of 292 penalty minutes.
We’re not exactly talking about Sean Avery or Steve Downie here.
So on Wednesday when the OHL handed the 21-year-old a 10-game suspension – less than a week before the start of the OHL playoffs - for a hit to the head of Ottawa 67’s forward Shane Prince, there were more than a few people left scratching their heads in confusion.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that steep,” Billingsley said Thursday of his suspension. “But it was probably the worst time for that kind of hit to happen with all the stuff happening in the NHL. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t think I made a dirty hit. I think it was a legal hit with an unfortunate outcome.”
There was no penalty called on the hit. Prince himself admits he was making a “dangerous play” cutting through the middle of the ice with his head down. The open-ice hit popped Prince’s helmet off and though it’s unclear how long the 67’s star will be out, the forward’s agent, Scott Norton, said Prince should be back for the 67’s playoff run which will begin on March 26 in Ottawa.
“The league is saying that (Prince) is going to be out for a long time, so this will be interesting to see the way this plays out,” said Niagara IceDogs coach and GM Marty Williamson. “I can see that if Shane Prince misses the whole first round, where the league’s stance is on this – that maybe our guy needs to be penalized.
“If Shane Prince starts the playoffs for them, then I think the league has made a real mistake here.”
Billingsley said he wrote a letter to the OHL explaining his version of what happened on the hit inside the Niagara blue line during the Ice Dogs’ 3-2 loss to Ottawa on March 11, but that no one from the league called to speak with him.
The overager said his arms were down on impact and that it felt like, “our shins were hitting each other all the way up to my shoulder. It was my body coming into contact with his body.”
He was then told that that Prince’s concussion was bad enough to keep him out until the second round of the playoffs.
“If the league did give me that many games because they thought they thought he was going to be out for that long and he does come back, it’ll be kind of weird,” said Billingsley. “But no one’s perfect.”
At issue is the OHL’s inconsistency when it comes to sanctioning players based on injury versus intent.
“When you have (other) GMs talking to me and we’re confused about the direction that we’re going. . . ,” said Williamson. “I think (OHL commissioner) Dave Branch does a very good job and I think he’s right in going after guys that target heads. He’s 100 percent right on that. I just don’t get where the consistency is where Tim Billingsley gets 10 games and (Kingston Frontenacs) Ethan Werek gets five and (Kingston defenceman) Erik Gudbrandson gets eight. I just don’t get the rhyme or reason of where we’re at.”
Earlier in the season, Gudbranson, a repeat offender this season, was given an eight-game suspension for a flying elbow to the head of Oshawa Generals forward J.P. Labardo. Williamson said that he based his argument with Branch on the Gudbranson suspension and thought the number would be somewhere around eight games or less, factoring in the extra weight put on missing playoff games.
“I just can’t fathom how this is different or that this is more severe than what Gudbranson did,” said Williamson. “That’s where I just don’t see the rhyme or reason. We’ve been pretty consistent with five games for head hits.”
On Wednesday, Werek was suspended five-games for his elbow to the head of Oshawa forward Boone Jenner. Like Labardo, Jenner was lucky to be left uninjured after the hit.
Billingsley doesn’t have the same kind of profile as NHL draftees Werek or Gudbranson, but his leadership and stability on the blue line have proven invaluable to a young Niagara team looking to make waves in the playoffs. The Ottawa native was picked up in a trade with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors over the summer and usually plays close to 30 minutes a game.
“This is a blow to us,” said Williamson. “As a group we’ve vowed that we’re going to get Tim back in the lineup. So we’re going to keep winning until he can come back.”