By now, we’ve all seen the tape of Calgary Flames’ forward and super-pest Matthew Tkachuk hitting Edmonton Oilers’ forward Zack Kassian and the latter rag-dolling Tkachuk following the last hit.
Kassian was handed a four-minute double minor and the Flames would go on to win that instalment of the Battle of Alberta. But I’m sure you all knew that as well. Still, the stories and comments and war of words stemming from that event hasn’t cooled off one bit in the days that followed.
Now, like many controversial plays in sports, regardless of what side you take, you’re on the wrong one. There are those that support Tkachuk’s somewhat targeted hits on Kassian and there are those – especially some from the old school way of thought – that agree with Kassian standing up for himself. Either way, your take is bound to be overshadowed by the rebuttals of hundreds of other fans and media types online.
Still, it’s worth looking at from both sides. Following the league’s decision to suspend Kassian for two games, and the post-game comments by both sides, it’s unlikely this war between the two players and teams is coming to a close anytime soon. In fact, this is not only just a battle between the two teams in a much larger war, it may have single-handedly reignited the rivalry between the two clubs.
Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?
Is there really a simple answer to that question? These plays were a prime example of the grey areas that exist in the NHL.
With the league trying to crack down on dangerous hits and fighting, in a sense, players have taken liberties when it comes to the physical play. Hacking of the hand areas and targeted hits have become more prominent with an increase in the lack of responses.
While the NHL’s Department of Player Safety (DoPS) were satisfied with the cleanliness of Tkachuk’s three hits on Kassian, others weren’t as quick to say they were good hits under league rules.
According to Sportsnet, long-time referee Paul Stewart tweeted: “A hit that isn’t technically illegal isn’t automatically a clean hit or a good hockey play. When a winger runs out of position to, from above the goal-line, body-check an already engaged opponent below the goal-line, it’s not good hockey.”
Others agreed with Stewart arguing that Tkachuk’s hits were borderline and fringe hockey hits – especially the first one that knocked Kassian’s helmet off. It was even suggested that Tkachuk purposely targeted Kassian with his hits trying to get the Oilers’ forward off his game.
Regardless, the DoPS deemed Kassian as the aggressor and the way he flopped Tkachuk around like a rag doll without his helmet on, it did appear to be far more aggressive than it had to be.
But did Kassian get his pound of flesh from Tkachuk after he was targeted on three hits? With the comments made by him, as well as some teammates following the incident, one would suggest that the war is just beginning.
Add to that the fact that he’ll return from his two-game suspension to a rematch with the rival Flames and this is just the beginning.
What’s Being Said…
While Tkachuk’s response to the incident was simple, that Kassian should stay off the tracks if he doesn’t want to get hit, Kassian responded by calling out the younger Flames’ forward for not fighting him following the last hit.
Former NHL forward, Scottie Upshall, criticized the hit saying that the onus was on Tkachuk as the aggressor to make sure that his target wasn’t vulnerable. He explained that having a player come around the net like that puts them in a vulnerable position and makes it a dangerous hit whether the head was targeted or not.
“The net acts as an obstacle on the ice,” said Upshall in the Sportsnet article. “They can’t see you leaving your point, coming down to smoke you. I did that in the playoffs once against Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh. I knocked him out. It is as dirty as it can get. If you take four strides away from your position (guarding) the D-man, you’re playing old-time hockey. You’re trying to kill the guy.”
As for Kassian’s current teammates, former Flame and current Oiler James Neal called the hit ‘gutless’ and recognized that it’s a hit that has been taken out of the game for the most part. While Neal focused on the hit, Leon Draisaitl explained that if put on the ice with Tkachuk at All-Star Weekend, he’s leave the playing surface immediately.
Others, like Sid Seixeiro from Sportsnet’s ‘Tim and Sid’, didn’t see anything wrong with the hits. He argued that, while the hit might have been slightly borderline, it’s Tkachuk doing his job and getting under the skin of the other team’s players. He went as far as saying that Tkachuk isn’t just a rat on the ice, but he’s someone that contributes to the team in a big way, alluding to his offensive numbers and all-star nod.
But like any war, there are two sides to this battle that should carry on for the remainder of the season.
What Can We Expect From Tkachuk-Kassian Incident?
Retribution. Or at least expect to see some kind of response on the part of Kassian and the Oilers. The fact is, Kassian will return from his suspension to a rematch with the Flames. On top of that, the team’s play three more times – including the night Kassian is eligible to come back.
While he may be looking for a response from Tkachuk – one in which the two will face-off at some point during the game – chances are Kassian will be staring down either Milan Lucic or Zac Rinaldo when the time comes. After all, that’s what those two are in the lineup to do.
But all of this begs the question – are players in today’s NHL held responsible for their dangerous and questionable plays. In this case, Kassian is the one that is paying for his response with two games and his lost wages during that time. Meanwhile, Tkachuk will suit up for the next Flames game with no questions asked.
Whether you believe the hits were dirty or not, the fact is Kassian’s helmet flew off on two of the hits with one of them coming close to being a head shot as the Oilers forward came around the net. Still, no discipline for Tkachuk. Will he think twice the next time he’s put in that position? Probably not.
While I’m not here to crucify Tkachuk for the physical play – because the game is lacking it at times – I’m simply here to remind folks on both sides that grey areas and subjectivity still remain in the NHL and the game of hockey. The Tkachuk-Kassian incident, while it reignited the rivalry in the Battle of Alberta, is a prime example of just how undefined some of the rules are when it comes to the league trying to better their safety precautions.
That said, it has the hockey world buzzing and while Tkachuk won the battle, the war between these two players and teams is far from over.
Tape2Tape is a column looking at some of the biggest stories from around the world of hockey. Discussing different topics, it focuses on delivering some opinion to hockey’s biggest fans. Whether you agree or disagree, we would love to hear your thoughts.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.