The game is over and the damage is done. The Pittsburgh Penguins are down 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Final to the Boston Bruins. Matt Cooke is not suspended, Adam McQuaid is not injured, and Cooke essentially served his time with a 5 minute major for checking from behind and a game misconduct in Game 1.
This isn’t an article about the officiating, Matt Cooke’s reputation, or the fairness of the call though. This is an article about the fundamental flaws that both players demonstrated in the game of hockey.
Before properly analyzing the hit and how each player acted, it’s important to be familiar with the rules involved.
“A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.
There is an enormous amount of judgment involved in the application of this rule by the Referees. The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize the contact. However, in determining whether such contact could have been avoided, the circumstances of the check, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the check or whether the check was unavoidable can be considered. This balance must be considered by the Referees when applying this rule.”
Furthermore, it is at the referee’s discretion to asses a minor penalty, major penalty, and/or game misconduct for boarding.
“A check from behind is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body. When a player intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back, no penalty shall be assessed.”
In terms of penalties, there is no provision for a minor penalty for checking from behind. There is a major penalty that comes with an automatic game misconduct.
Take note: There is a strong incentive for a player to feign unawareness, or even act ignorant to his surroundings, to earn a checking from behind penalty and a 5 minute major on the opponent. Also, I am not suggesting McQuaid necessarily did this. Just keep it in mind for the rest of your life as you watch hockey.
Let’s go back and break down the video now.
Adam McQuaid goes back to play the puck, gets hit in the back by Matt Cooke against the boards, and goes down on the ice. It’s a simple play in theory. There is no question it should be penalized and that’s the type of hit the NHL wants to remove from the game.
Using the replays that CBC provided in that clip:
48 seconds: McQuaid is skating back to the puck and he looks over his left shoulder, presumably to see what his outlet options are. Meanwhile, Cooke is engaged with Krug as he tries to skate by.
50 seconds: McQuaid is at the goal line and stopping to play the puck with his skates angled to the right, almost parallel to the goal line. He also looks over his right shoulder, presumably to see what his outlet options are. It’s tough to tell if he looks directly at Cooke, but Cooke and Krug should be in his field of vision for where he looked. Meanwhile, Cooke has gotten past Krug and is skating directly at McQuaid.
51 seconds: McQuaid abruptly turns his skates back towards the boards and then to the left as he tries to play the puck and keep body position on Cooke. He is facing the boards as he starts to backhand the puck to the right side and should be aware that Cooke is bearing down on him. Meanwhile, Cooke continues in his intended direction and starts to make contact with McQuaid’s back.
Still at 51 seconds: Cooke hits McQuaid in the numbers and propels him forward into the boards as McQuaid plays the puck to the right side.
Matt Cooke’s Responsibility
This part is easy. Cooke sees nothing but McQuaid’s numbers throughout the duration of the play. Instead of altering his angle of attack to either side of McQuaid to impact a shoulder, Cooke continues to bear down on McQuaid’s back. Additionally, Cooke makes no effort to play the puck either; he is going for the hit all the way.
Throw out Cooke’s reputation, his history, and anything else you may dislike about him – that’s a bad hit no matter who makes it. Even if Pavel Datysuk makes that hit, it’s a dirty hit and a penalty.
Cooke had other options. He could have eased up and used his stick to try and get the puck. He could have changed his angle as he skated in on McQuaid and thus changed the hit. Unfortunately, he and many other NHL players continue to just throw a hit into another player’s back though. Hockey is fast, but Cooke had plenty of time to react.
The responsibility of the hitter is simply this: don’t hit someone in the back on the numbers. It’s not a hard concept.
Adam McQuaid’s Responsibility
This is where things get interesting. What is McQuaid’s responsibility when it comes to his own positioning and how he reacts to what is about to happen? As outlined above, McQuaid looks in Cooke’s general direction before arriving at the boards, so he should be aware Cooke is bearing down on him.
At this point, McQuaid has a quick decision to make. His options are a) brace for the hit, b) play the puck, c) protect the puck, d) some combination of the previous options. Despite knowing Cooke is coming, it appears McQuaid goes with a hybrid of options b and c.
After his skates were angled to the right to stop at the goal line, he shifted them back towards the boards and then to the left (with Cooke coming from his right). This ensured his back would stay towards Cooke and it provided him with positioning to protect the puck. As McQuaid did this, he also chipped the puck to the right, giving himself no chance to brace for an imminent impact.
While Cooke certainly remains at fault for his actions, McQuaid also ensured there would be a penalty by turning his skates the other way and keeping his back toward Cooke despite knowing what was about to happen.
If I was a Bruins fan, I would be inclined to say that was a great job by McQuaid to draw the penalty. That is where a problem lies; there is a strong incentive to stay in a relatively vulnerable position if it will earn your team a man advantage.
Turned his back on the hit . Seen a lot of players to do this tactic to draw penalties. Not saying that was McQuaid’ intention o do that
— Rick Tocchet (@RealRocket22) June 2, 2013
Players don’t protect themselves
— Rick Tocchet (@RealRocket22) June 2, 2013
So is McQuaid’s responsibility to his team to draw the penalty? Or is it to himself to stay safe? Or is it to the “pure” version of the game of hockey, where the focus is on the sport and not trying to draw an advantage?
Good Luck, Officials
In the end, maybe playoff officiating is getting worse because referees are forced to keep track of this “gamesmanship” that occurs in each game. In the above play, the call was likely wrong because McQuaid presumably was aware of Cooke, which explicitly negates checking from behind as an option.
That call really doesn’t matter though. The problem is we have a sport where Cooke continues his pursuit directly into someone’s back and McQuaid is encouraged to stay vulnerable to draw a penalty. It is easy to say what Cooke did was wrong. That doesn’t make McQuaid’s actions pure though. Substitute the names for any boarding or checking from behind call you have seen this year, and the problem remains the same. In a perfect world, Cooke goes for the puck or a shoulder and McQuaid puts a shoulder into Cooke as well while moving the puck along.
At some point, players have to respect themselves, each other, and the game of hockey.
Referees Wes McCauley and Dan O’Halloran get the call for Penguins-Bruins Game 2. Good luck to both of them in trying to sort through what each team will want them to see. They will have to deal with the antics of Crosby and Malkin, the reputation of Cooke, and oh….Boston too: