Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
All season long, the NHL has been trying (largely unsuccessfully) to engage in a crusade against dangerous hits. Specifically, the league has really been adamant about Rule 48, which bans “a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.”
While a lot of different incidents have taken place that have caused the league to dish out discipline in accordance with this rule, an event that occurred on Wednesday night was perhaps the most egregious infraction to occur yet. In the New York Islanders’ game against the Minnesota Wild, Isles left winger Trevor Gillies demolished Wild RW Cal Clutterbuck with a hit against the boards. Here’s the video of that incident and the commentators on Versus’ NHL Overtime’s reaction to it:
What made this hit even worse is that it occurred in Gillies’ first game back after a nine game suspension for him attacking Pittsburgh Penguins’ forward Eric Tangradi and then taunting him as he lay injured on the ice. Tangradi is still out with a concussion as a result of the hit, and the fact that Gilles would act in such an irresponsible fashion literally minutes after completing a lengthy suspension tells us two things:
1. Gillies has no regard for the health or safety of anyone else on the ice in an NHL game. His callous and calculated attempts to injure players have absolutely no place in this game.
2. The Islanders bear some responsibility for Gillies’ actions. While they were already fined for the team’s role in the ruckus that occurred in that February game against the Penguins, the fact that they allowed Gillies back on the ice shows a blind ignorance to the fact that Trevor is a dangerous player, and that cannot be tolerated.
With these two statements out of the way, we can get on to the business of what the appropriate punishment for the play should be. Does this fall under the jurisdiction of Rule 48? Was there a willful intent to injure Clutterbuck on the part of Gillies? Should the Islanders be punished in some way? What should the league do to both parties, if anything?
The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Gillies clearly led with his elbow on the play, and he was aiming at Clutterbuck’s head in an attempt to knock him through the glass. After the game, Gillies said of the hit “I went over and finished my hit. I saw him hit DiBo, and I made a hit on him. That’s it.”
Clutterbuck seemed to disagree with Gillies’ erroneous characterization of his actions, saying “that’s the only thing he hit” in claiming that Trevor targeted his head. The replay would seem to back up Cal’s account of events, so there’s no doubt that Rule 48 has to be enforced here.
The second query about there being a willful intent to injure is a little murkier, but it probably can also be answered with a yes. Even though Gillies claimed that “there was no intent to injure him,” the reality is that a targeted hit to the head in a situation like this is most likely an attempt to hurt a guy. Whether Gillies was thinking that way or not, he wanted to send a message, and while he could have done that with a simple check into the boards, the fact that he deliberately slammed Clutterbuck’s head into the boards seems to indicate that he was trying to knock Cal out of the game. Even though Clutterbuck did not miss any games because of the incident, that should not get Gillies off the hook for trying to hurt him.
As for the Islanders, they certainly deserve some blame for this. As the team that signs the paycheck of the offending player (and the fact that he is not a first-time offender), the team bears some responsibility when their guy goes out and does something reckless and ill-advised. Obviously it’s impossible to suspend a General Manager or owner in a situation like this, but a fine is something that the league should at least consider here.
Finally, the question comes up as to what the appropriate punishment should be. Knowing that Gillies was just coming off a nine-game suspension, targeted a player’s head on a lateral hit, and probably meant to injure him, the suspension that Trevor should receive needs to be a severe one.
With 17 games remaining in the season, the league needs to send a strong message that this kind of idiotic behavior will not be tolerated, and they need to suspend Gillies for the remainder of the season. There is absolutely no place in this game for the kind of meat-headed and irresponsible play that Trevor has now illustrated on multiple occasions this season. If the league is serious about preventing something like this from ever happening again, then this is their moment to take a stand.
The punishment should not end after the Isles’ season finale, however. Much like the NFL has done with some high profile disciplinary cases, commissioner Gary Bettman needs to have a one-on-one meeting with Gillies after the season ends to determine whether or not he should be reinstated into the league. Whether that means sending Trevor through some type of therapy for some deep-seeded anger issues that he clearly has is for the league to decide, but something clearly needs to be done here.
As for the Islanders, they should be held culpable, but not with a fine in this instance. They should try to stand by their player as best they can, and that means imploring him to seek some psychological help.
With Gillies’ impending free agency after this season, Bettman also needs to put teams on notice about the responsibility they bear if they employ Trevor in the future. If the league wants to send a further message about employing these type of dangerous players, then a good place to start would be putting a team on the hook for the actions of their employees.
One potential solution would be to impose a fine on the team with Gillies on their roster if they decide to sign him and he commits another heinous act like this. While it may not sit well with the NHLPA, the reality is that Bettman would be in an advantageous position if he were to act in this manner. Would the Players’ Association really want to intercede on behalf of someone who has now attempted to injure two of their members? It seems highly unlikely that they would stick their necks out like that, and so Gary should certainly do everything in his power to make sure that teams know the risk they are undertaking if they let Gillies back on NHL ice.
Will the league go to these lengths to punish Trevor? Most likely not, but this truly is a defining moment in their efforts to keep this kind of dangerous behavior out of the game. If they slap Trevor on the wrist here, then they might as well wave a white flag at the press conference to announce the punishment. It will send a clear message to fans and media alike that the league is spineless and cowardly, and above all not to be taken seriously.
So step up to the plate commissioner. Do something about this blight on the game that you oversee, and make sure that no one is ever paralyzed or killed by an incredibly reckless act like the one we saw on Wednesday night.