Jim Neveau, Senior NHL Columnist
It has been a recurring theme throughout the past several NHL seasons, and once again on Wednesday night in Chicago the biggest story in the league took center stage. No, it wasn’t about the bitter rivalry between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks, and no it wasn’t about seeing two teams jockeying for playoff position as the season wears down. Instead, the issue that came to the forefront yet again was the league’s battle to legislate vicious targeted hits to the head of defenseless players.
The winner of the raffle to be drilled with a questionable hit was superstar winger Daniel Sedin of the Canucks. Skating through the neutral zone, Sedin got clocked in the head by Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith. Keith received a two-minute elbowing penalty on the play, and Sedin had to sit the rest of the game.
Now, with news coming out that Sedin is out indefinitely with a concussion, Keith’s imminent suspension has been the talk of the town in NHL circles. Terms like “first-time offender” and “position of the hit in relation to the puck” have been thrown around by just about everyone with an opinion on the matter, but it was ultimately head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan who’s opinion mattered. After an in-person hearing with Keith on Friday, Shanahan announced that the former Norris Trophy winner had been suspended five games. In issuing the suspension, Shanahan cited the fact that the hit was “dangerous, reckless, and caused injury” in framing his reasoning for the suspension, and the thinking is that he viewed it as a retaliatory hit for one that Sedin had laid on Keith earlier in the game.
Before we get to the X’s and O’s of the play, here is the video just in case you haven’t seen it:
Watching the video at first blush, there are several things that immediately come into focus. The first among those is that Keith very clearly targets Sedin’s head. He reaches his arm well above chest level to deliver the hit, so it doesn’t exactly take a huge leap of logic to come to the conclusion that he intended to hit Sedin high. Sedin was in a fairly vulnerable position, and the onus in that situation has to be on the attacking player to avoid a shot to the head, and Keith very clearly did not do that.
The second factor that comes into play is the position of the puck. On a lot of hits that have warranted suspensions, the puck has been at least somewhere near the player who is going after it, but in this case, the puck pretty clearly was not playable by either player. If it had been near their skates, the argument could have been made that it was not a fully dirty play, but given how the puck was airborne and the way Keith is sizing up the hit as he approaches Sedin, that argument holds zero water.
With those two factors in mind, you’re already looking at two strikes towards a lengthy suspension. Shanahan, who hasn’t exactly been keeping the iron hand of the law going during the season, would have ample reason just based on those two factors to ban Keith for a long stretch, but that wasn’t all that he had to contend with.
The argument about whether or not the hit was premediated is another interesting facet to this whole thing. From Brendan’s comments, it’s pretty clear that he’s assuming Keith wanted revenge on Sedin for a questionable hit that he laid on him along the boards earlier in the shift, and it’s hard to dispute that. A player is naturally going to get angry if they get hit up high, but while his ire was understandable, it doesn’t excuse his conduct in the moments following the hit.
With those three things laid out, they raise a simple question: was Keith’s five game suspension warranted? In addition to the circumstances of the hit, there are two key elements that need to be considered. The first of those is Keith’s suspension history, or lack thereof. Keith has never had a reputation as a dirty player, and the fact that he has never been disciplined for a hit speaks to that. There is a significant difference in the determination of a punishment when it comes to whether a player suffered from just a temporary lack of judgment, or whether he has a repeated pattern of behavior, and Keith definitely falls into the first of those two categories.
The other factor is the severity of the injury. Where Colin Campbell rarely if ever let that color his decisions, Shanahan has blazed his own trail on the subject, and that worked against Keith in this case. When Shane Doan put an elbow into the head of Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn, he only received a three game suspension, due in large part to the fact that Benn returned to the game. Unfortunately for Keith, Sedin did not return and is out with a serious head injury, so Shanahan’s logic dictates that this needs to be punished more severely.
All things being considered, a five game suspension was a fair one for Keith. Yes, he deliberately hit Sedin high in retaliation for a previous hit. Yes, he hit him when the puck was nowhere near him. Those two things are worthy of a five game suspension.
What isn’t correct is the argument by some in the hockey media that Keith’s suspension should have been longer. It may be all well and good to talk about how a precedent needs to be set about hits to the head, but the fact of the matter is that Shanahan has been so scattershot with his discipline that demanding a longer ban for Keith is simply silly. Doan’s case is a perfect example of this fallacy. He pretty clearly targeted a vulnerable player with a hit to the head, and he’s even a repeat offender, which means that he can’t use the argument of only being a victim of a lapse in judgment. Doan has a pattern of making bad decisions, and yet he only received three games, in large part because Benn was not injured.
Oftentimes in the criminal justice system, a person who has a clean record is given the benefit of the doubt, and for the most part, that is the correct way to go. Keith has shown no semblance of this attitude in his time in the NHL, so his five game suspension was fair by itself. Using the severity of an injury to impose a suspension has been shown in this case to be a bad endeavor, because in nearly identical circumstances, a first-time offender was given a longer ban than a guy who’s had multiple run-ins with the league office since the new headshot rules went into effect in 2010. This is a bad precedent to follow, and Shanahan needs to keep that in mind the next time a player with a history of suspensions and fines is called onto the carpet.
Pivoting back to Keith, fans need to hold Shanahan accountable to the new precedent that this has set. A retaliatory hit to the head that causes an injury is now worthy of a five game suspension in the eyes of the league, even to a first time offender, so Sheriff Shanny needs to keep that in mind next time. If he doesn’t, then all his talk about trying to clean up the league and make it more safe for players is a bunch of bunk, and we might as well bring back the Wheel of Justice that Campbell seemed to have used during his era of dishing out suspensions. Going back to that would disgrace the league, and unfortunately it seems as though Shanahan might very well be headed down that road.