Here was the Vancouver Canucks’ Raffi Torres(notes), straight off a four-game suspension for an elbow to the head, delivering a shoulder to the head of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook(notes) on Sunday night in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series. Here we go again, right?
Then Shanahan looked at the play again and again and again. The more he studied it and aligned it with the rules as they are written, Shanahan, a star player turned NHL executive, thought the only issue was whether Torres should have received a major penalty for interference instead of a minor. He didn’t think Torres had broken Rule 48, which was introduced last year to ban blindside hits to the head.
“Do I like the hit? No,” said Shanahan, the NHL’s vice-president of hockey and business development.
But that doesn’t mean it was illegal, and that illustrates the delicate position in which the NHL has put itself at a time when concussions are a major issue in sports. The league is trying to have it both ways – outlawing some hits to the head, to protect vulnerable players, but still allowing others, to keep that element of physical play in the game.
“Unless the league and union get together and say, ‘Any contact to the head and …’ ” Shanahan said. “But right now, that’s not the rule … and I don’t think the players want that right now.”
Without a black-and-white ban on hits to the head, everyone is going to have to live with shades of gray and nuanced interpretations of the rules by the powers that be in the hockey operations department, and the league is going to have to live with looking inconsistent on enforcement.
“If I were the Chicago Blackhawks, I wouldn’t like that hit, and if I were the Vancouver Canucks, I would say, ‘It’s just one of our tougher teammates trying to get in on the forecheck and deliver a punishing hit,’ ” Shanahan said. “Especially on players who play on the line, it’s our job to decide when he’s right on the line and when he’s crossed the line. And I’d say that hit last night was right on the line.”
It’s an awfully fine line.
On April 5, Torres laid out the Edmonton Oilers’ Jordan Eberle(notes). He ignored the puck in the corner, veered to his left and stuck his left elbow into the right side of Eberle’s head. Eberle never saw him coming. Torres received a five-minute major for elbowing and a game misconduct, and he was suspended for the final two games of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs. It was a harsh suspension, and it seemed to send a message that such hits would be punished more severely.
Then Sunday night, Torres smoked Seabrook. He coasted to the right around the net as Seabrook was coming the other way, his torso facing forward, but his head looking back to the right for the puck ringing around the boards. Torres put his right shoulder into the left side of Seabrook’s head just before the puck arrived. Seabrook never saw him coming. All Torres received was two minutes for interference.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” Keith said. “It seems like he just got off a suspension from a hit just similar like that, when a guy didn’t have possession of the puck and he takes a blatant run at the guy and hits him right in the head.”
Torres should have received a five-minute major for interference. Rule 56.4 states the referee has the discretion to assess one “based on the degree of violence,” and this hit was violent to a high degree. The Blackhawks tied the game 2-2 with Torres in the box, but they could have scored more had they been given a five-minute power play. They ended up losing 3-2 and falling behind in the series 3-0, putting the defending Stanley Cup champions in danger of being swept.
“The call on the ice is where we probably got hurt the most,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
But what about a suspension? Why did Torres not even face a disciplinary hearing, especially when this incident came right after the one involving Eberle?
“You can line up those two hits, and you might not like either of them,” Shanahan said. “But there is a difference between the Eberle hit and the Seabrook hit.”
Colin Campbell, the NHL’s senior executive vice-president of hockey operations, sought the opinions of other league executives on the Seabrook hit, as he often does in such cases. There is always debate. There is rarely complete consensus. But Shanahan, Rob Blake(notes) and several others felt Rule 48 did not apply in this case.
When Torres hit Eberle, his elbow was up, and it blindsided Eberle directly in the head. Eberle also couldn’t have been reasonably expected to see Torres coming in that situation.
But when Torres hit Seabrook, his elbow was down, and the feeling was he did not break either of the two parts of Rule 48, which defines an illegal check to the head as a “lateral or blindside hit” in which “the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.”
Shanahan said he felt that because Seabrook’s body was square, even though his head was turned, it was not a lateral or blindside hit. He said he also felt this “was a crushing hit to … Seabrook’s body, including the head,” but the head was not targeted or the principle point of contact.
Campbell said in a statement that when the general managers adopted Rule 48 in March 2010, “there was no intention to make this type of shoulder hit to the head illegal. In fact, at that time, we distributed a video to all players and teams that showed a similar hit on a defenseman by an attacking forward coming from the opposite direction behind the net and stated that this is a ‘legal play.’ ”
That’s not to say that Rule 48 does not apply to hits behind the net. It’s to say that a defenseman looking for the puck in that area should know a forechecker could be lurking. The key concept is that there was a reasonable expectation that Seabrook should have seen Torres or at least been aware of him.
“It wasn’t like a green light in a certain zone; it was a certain type of hit on a certain type of play,” Shanahan said. “I think sometimes unsuspecting gets used too much, because the whole point of hitting a guy oftentimes (is that) he’s got his head down or he’s watching his pass or he didn’t see me coming. That’s still in hockey. That’s still a part of tough hockey. If every guy saw every guy coming, there wouldn’t be any other hits in hockey.”
Seabrook disagreed with the league’s decision. He felt Torres hit him from the blindside and hit his head first. (Torres was unavailable for comment.)
“I think with his history, I think that hit deserves a suspension,” Seabrook said. “I’m not going to sit up here and complain about that. It’s a fast game. Things happen quick. You’ve got a split-second to make a decision. I don’t think he was trying to hit me in the head. But at the same time, I mean, if the league’s not going to suspend somebody for that, I just don’t really understand that.”
It’s a big problem when the players don’t clearly understand the league’s rules or rulings, walking a fine line when they’re not exactly sure where that line is drawn. Short of a simple ban on hits to the head, the league must keep refining its position and better educate everyone on what is and is not acceptable and why.
“It’s still early,” Shanahan said. “We’re still learning. Players are still learning. (NHL director of officiating) Terry Gregson said something to me once, which was, ‘Good rules evolve,’ and I think that this one is still evolving. … We’re all trying to do the right thing. We’re all trying to get to the same place, and we’re going to have some nights where we don’t agree.”