November 29, 2009
These weekly debates about injurious hits and the predictions about what supplemental punishment they should or should not receive -- and according to Bob McKenzie of TSN, Matt Cooke(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the next to be strapped to the Wheel of Discipline -- are not primarily the fault of reckless players but that of a feckless punitive system in the NHL.
It's something Larry Brooks tried to crystallize in his NY Post column on Sunday:
It's not that there's a double standard when it comes to NHL supplementary discipline, it's that there is no standard whatsoever. To wit: Georges Laraque(notes) sticks out his leg in a reflex reaction, injures Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall(notes) with a knee-on-knee, and receives a five-game suspension for an unintentional but reckless play. Curtis Glencross(notes) on the other hand, intentionally delivers a forearm to Chris Drury's(notes) chin, thus concussing the Rangers center though he was nowhere near the puck, and receives a three-game suspension for his intentional and flagrant foul. Knee injury, five games; brain injury, three games.
But as much as we want to blame the NHL's incompetence for this endless cycle of outrage over these plays -- for the record, the League's disciplinary performance in last year's playoffs was as inequitable as it gets -- many of these debates expose something just as inconsistent:
How can we expect the NHL to punish fairly when fans and media can't even agree on what's punishable?
For example, Brooks's definition of Laraque's knee-on-knee hit on Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings: "[He] sticks out his leg in a reflex reaction."
If by "reflex reaction" Brooks means "was beaten on a play so he extended his leg in an effort to trip Kronwall, caught him with a knee-on-knee hit and injured him for a month" ... well, yeah, we're in agreement.
If he's labeling this thing as an innocent mistake worthy of two minutes, then we strongly disagree.
But the point is that Brooks saw it his way, and we saw it completely differently; just as the Red Wings saw it one way and Laraque saw it completely differently.
The same thing is happening in the situation involving Alex Ovechkin's(notes) hit on Patrick Kaleta(notes) of the Buffalo Sabres, which warranted a game misconduct but not a suspension, and Kaleta's hit on Jared Ross of the Philadelphia Flyers, which warranted a two-game suspension.
Brian Reynolds of Hockey Wilderness is baffled about how one received supplemental discipline and the other did not:
Which is worse, and why? Kaleta has a history of dirty hits. Not going to defend him in any way. Kaleta, however, hit a player who was standing against the boards. Not sure why that is even boarding. Maybe I need an explanation of the two rules, but it looks to me like Ovechkin's is boarding, and Kaleta's is charging, but either way, they are both bad hits.
You can check out both hits on his site, but in our eyes its pretty clear cut: The Ovechkin hit (video) was a late hit on a guy on the side boards who was heading up ice until he dished the puck; the Kaleta hit (video) was a charge against the end boards into a player's back, on a play that was more blatant than the Mike Liambas hit that earned him a season-long suspension in the OHL.
But again, that's just one interpretation. It's also the one Lindy Ruff had, as far as the Ovechkin hit goes:
"He got what he deserved, and let's move on," Ruff said. "It wasn't that he ran at him. He just finished him at a time he shouldn't have finished him. I didn't think there was any brutal force involved. He just caught him after Pat had made the pass, and Pat's head went into the glass."
It seems as though the disciplinary rulings this season had being doled out based more on reputation and injury than intent, which is where we've long argued the onus should be placed. Based on that standard, Ovechkin didn't have the suspension rap sheet or reputation as a dirty player (hitter, maybe, player, not so much) as someone like Kaleta does. But he's on notice now with that game misconduct; on the next one of these borderline hits, he gets suspended. If he doesn't, then we've got a legitimate reason to scream about double-standards.
An example of an illegitimate reason? "Because he's a Flyer." Which is the argument Tim Panaccio made yesterday regarding Danny Briere's(notes) suspension for his hit on Scott Hannan(notes) of the Colorado Avalanche earlier last week:
This is what injustice is all about in the NHL. Briere got two games because the league was champing on the bit to suspend a Flyer because, as much as they wanted to suspend Mike Richards(notes) earlier this month for his hit on Florida's David Booth(notes), they couldn't find anything wrong with it within the rules.
Ovechkin deserved to be suspended far more than Briere did. And he wasn't. And we all know why. And if all that wasn't enough, you had Kaleta, the "victim" of Ovie's hit, throwing a cheap hit from behind on Jared Ross on Black Friday. Ross was able to avoid concussion, however.
Look at Ovie's hit, look at Kaleta's hit, then look at Briere's hit, and tell us which of the three wasn't a hit worth a suspension. It's pretty obvious.
First, it's pretty hard to argue that there's rampant anti-Flyers bias in the NHL when (a) the Richards hit was vehemently defended as a hockey play at a time when suspending him would have been the much easier path to take and (b) Kaleta was suspended for hitting someone in an orange sweater. This isn't the Steve Downie(notes)/Jesse Boulerice message-sending thing all over again.
Yes, so loathed are the Philadelphia Flyers by the NHL that they'll be playing in Fenway Park on New Year's Day and Comcast has exclusive cable rights for the League. It's like Gary Bettman drops his suit pants and defecates on the Bullies at every turn, isn't it?
But more importantly: Briere was suspended because some saw this hit differently, like the Avs blog Mile High Hockey:
For what it's worth, I think 2 games is just about right. Lots have people have talked about how he left his feet and all, but frankly I think that aspect of hitting gets overplayed a bit. To me, whether he left his feet or not, that's a dirty hit; it was a cross check, it was up high and it was after the play was over
The point isn't that whether the Flyers beat writer or the Colorado blogger is correct. The point isn't that the "Suspend Ovechkin if You Suspend Kaleta" crowd is right or wrong.
The point is that both sides can be so clearly, distinctly argued on some these hits that the NHL is in a no-win situation on them, compounded by the fact that its own suspension history is muddled by subjective, misguided and political decisions rather than any sort of logical standard of enforcement.
Oh, and the point is also that Larry Brooks is a Georges Laraque apologist. Because for all the deep sighs and angry rhetoric over the other recent borderline plays, that's one the NHL got somewhere near correct.
Although we're sure some of you will see it differently.