The NHL has released a statement when it comes to the investigation into a slashing incident between Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon and an NHL official. During a game against the Boston Bruins, MacKinnon unintentionally hit an official with his stick after losing a faceoff to Tomas Nosek. The video shows what looks to be MacKinnon trying to get Nosek who skated out of his reach and grazed the official instead.
The NHL notes they immediately conducted an investigation into the incident and found no reason to fine or suspend MacKinnon. It’s somewhat baffling as to why.
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The safety of our on-ice officials is, and has always been, of paramount importance to us. In this regard, we have always exercised a zero tolerance policy when it comes to any form of abuse of our officials. Last night, one of our officials was struck by a player with his stick immediately after a face-off. We immediately investigated the incident and, having conferred with the on-ice officiating crew and the NHL Officials’ Association, it has been determined that the player’s intention was not to strike the official but, rather, to initiate contact with the opposing player. Given this conclusion, it has been determined that no further discipline is necassary. This decision should in no way be seen as a diminution of our steadfast conviction to protect our officials.
The NHL Contradicted Itself
The league admitted two things that are important to consider here. First, they noted they have a “zero-tolerance policy” for abuse of on-ice officials. Clearly, that isn’t true. If it were, MacKinnon would have been fined or suspended because, intentional or not, the league also admitted he struck the official. Second, the league admitted after its investigation that MacKinnon was trying to strike another player. That means, at best, he was in the act of committing a penalty for slashing.
Whether MacKinnon has a history of suspension or being careless with his stick isn’t terribly relevant here. The real question is, how does a player who the league knows is committing an illegal act as per the rules of the game, and then strikes an official while doing so, get away with nothing?
Back in 2017, Antoine Vermette slashed an official and immediately found himself suspended for 10 games. Yes, his slash was much more intentional and it was clear he meant to hit the official, but it’s not so different a play that MacKinnon should walk away with nothing.
At the time, Vermette said he wasn’t trying to hurt the official but made an error in judgment trying to get his attention. That didn’t matter to the NHL. Vermette acknowledged he should be suspended and said that using his stick in that manner was not the right decision. He felt a 10-game suspension was a bit much. It certainly appears that way now when you look at the decision on MacKinnon.
NHL Can’t Pick and Choose Who It Suspends
I’ve long been an advocate that the NHL needs to do a better job of protecting its star players and that includes MacKinnon. In saying that, that protection should be limited to calling penalties on opposing players when stars are held up or infracted upon, not let them get away with obvious plays that should be suspendable and would see other non-stars fined or suspended.
If this play had happened and it was Brad Marchand who did it, you can almost guarantee he’d be sitting for a stretch of games and the NHL would be throwing the hammer down, citing a blatant disrespect for his surroundings and the officials. Instead, because it’s MacKinnon, the benefit of the doubt goes to the player. Whether the official believed MacKinnon had the intent or not shouldn’t matter.
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These types of punishments can’t be a one-way street. The NHL either has to take a firm stance or let it go as no big deal. The former makes a lot more sense so things don’t get out of hand.
NHL Needs to Send a Clear and Concise Message
The message this lack of punishment sends is the wrong one. MacKinnon needs to be in control of his emotions and his stick when he’s frustrated. He wasn’t. It was clear that the timing of the incident — the Avalanche were trailing 5-1 — was not a coincidence and out of frustration, he struck an official. It’s unfortunate, but that types of errors in judgment need to come with consequences.
There are times when the league messes up suspensions. The practice of being inconsistent with discipline is not new to anyone who follows the NHL closely and the players have often voiced their frustrations that they don’t know what the guidelines are. All that said, what does it say when a player can strike an official (accidentally or not) and completely get away with it? The intent was there, even if it was aimed elsewhere.