Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
If there’s been one positive for NHL fans that has come as a result of the information age, it is the instant access that fans have to video and reaction to league news. Whether it be an instant scoring update or news about their favorite player’s injury, fans are never more than a couple of clicks away from having their finger on the pulse of the league.
These advances in technology have come with a price for the NHL itself, however. The improved access to video through mediums like YouTube has enabled fans to judge for themselves the validity of suspensions handed down by Colin Campbell and his cronies. For the most part, these decisions have been met with a lot of ridicule, and social media outlets like Twitter have enabled that vitriol to be shared with the masses.
Two incidents occurred last night in the league that perfectly demonstrated the power of these mediums. In New Jersey, Anton Volchenkov drilled Zack Boychuk with an elbow to the head….
….And in the Penguins game against the Blue Jackets, Matt Cooke once again demonstrated why a lot of fans throughout the NHL think he’s one of the dirtiest players in the game when he nailed Fedor Tyutin:
Both of these plays incurred plenty of wrath on the web, and the league responded quickly by holding disciplinary hearings with both players on Wednesday. In the end, Volchenkov got suspended for three games for his headshot, and Cooke got four games for his blind side demolition of Tyutin. Both suspensions brought varied reactions throughout the league, and the verdict for the most part was that they were too lenient. The real question is this: were they too lenient, or were they just right?
Volchenkov: Suspended 3 Games
Looking at the video of Anton’s hit, three things are immediately clear. One is that the hit wasn’t exactly an Earth-shattering blow and it didn’t even knock Babchuk off of his skates. The second is that he led out with his elbow and he definitely should have been given a major penalty for that reason. The third and final element of the hit is the fact that Volchenkov took a quick peek up before he nailed Babchuk in the head, so it can be reasonably argued that he targeted Zack’s head on the play.
One element that isn’t as clear is whether or not it was a blindside or lateral hit. It’s hard to tell whether or not Babchuk was able to see the hit coming, so immediately referring to it as blindside would be an incorrect assertion. As for it being a lateral hit, it’s hard to argue that it was. Volchenkov was skating straight north and south essentially, and Babchuk was angling toward him at the time of the hit. It’s hard to define that as lateral, so Rule 48 probably does not apply in this case.
Even still, headshots are something that the league is trying to eliminate from the game, blindside or not, and this definitely qualifies under that criteria. The fact that Volchenkov pretty clearly targeted Babchuk’s head made a suspension inevitable, and the three games that Anton got were pretty reasonable. It may not be a direct violation of the league’s new rules, but it is something that needs to be addressed eventually, and the league did a pretty good job of evaluating that hit properly.
This is a rare compliment from the author towards Campbell, and he’ll be well advised to let that warm his heart while we move on to Cooke’s “punishment”.
Cooke: Suspended 4 Games
Besides the fact that these two incidents occurred on the same night, the common thread between the Volchenkov and Cooke hits is that the intent of both were clear: the intent was there to injure the victimized party. Anton clearly targeted Babchuk’s head, and Cooke most assuredly was trying to knock Tyutin into next week. This intent led to his four game ban, but should it have been longer?
Two things immediately come to the forefront when looking at this hit. The first is that Cooke knew exactly who he was targeting when he was coming across the blue line. He honed in on Tyutin from there, and even when Fedor turned his back with Cooke in the face-off circle, that did not deter Matt from making the idiotic decision to level his man in the corner. The second factor is that he built up a huge head full of steam on the play. He wasn’t merely trying to knock Fedor off the puck. The ONLY motivating factor was to cause as much damage as possible on the play, and when that maliciousness is coupled with the almost Jaws-esque stalking that went on with this play, Cooke got off light by getting only a four game suspension.
To those that would point out that Tyutin wasn’t injured on the play and therefore the hit wasn’t that bad, those same folks need to remember the story of University of North Dakota player Robbie Bina and the terrifying hit he took in a game in 2005. He was nailed from behind in a similar fashion to this incident, and he ended up breaking his neck on the play. The reason this needs to be brought up is because a lot of people feel its hyperbolic to rail about the danger and potential for paralysis that these types of plays have, and that is a completely wrong assertion. The danger is very real, and it is a fact that Cooke could have seriously injured or even rendered Tyutin paralyzed with his ill-advised and stupid hit.
This is not the only hit from behind that has drawn the ire of fans this season, but it provided yet another opportunity for the league to send a message that these completely preventable foolish actions are unacceptable and will be punished severely. A four game suspension is not going to deter anyone from doing this again, and the league did its fans a disservice by not suspending Cooke for a much longer period of time.
So what should Cooke’s punishment have been? Ken Daneyko may have been on to something when he said the league should declare that it’ll look the other way for a week and let the players have their free shots at Cooke, but obviously they wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) condone such behavior. Another person (the author) jokingly suggested that the league should’ve suspended Cooke for three games and then mandated that he play without a helmet for the rest of the year so that he would be unprotected from players hitting him into the boards.
These punishments are of course mentioned in jest, but truthfully, Cooke should’ve gotten about double the punishment that he did. With the Penguins depth problems right now with Crosby and Malkin, that punishment may have been doubly hard for the Pens to swallow. That being said, the reality is that he deliberately set out to injure another player, and with his history of questionable behavior (including a knee-to-knee hit on Alex Ovechkin in his previous game), it isn’t out of line to suspend him for longer.
The argument for the league to “send a message” may be cliched at this point, but it definitely applies in this situation. The boarding players from behind has become an epidemic, and it will continue to be until the punishment becomes so severe that guys decide that discretion is the route to take.
One would hope that the NHL would realize this eventually, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.