In the latest edition of How Did The Department of Player Safety Not See This Coming, another lenient suspension has led to a copycat offence.
Sticking It Out to the Bitter End
The Columbus Blue Jackets’ Matt Calvert was in the hot seat for an unnecessary cross-check to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Tom Kuhnhackl. The incident occurred in the final minute of a 4-1 Pittsburgh win that saw the Penguins take a 2-0 series lead over the Blue Jackets. An obviously frustrated Calvert skated over to Kuhnhackl, unprovoked, and broke his stick over the shoulder/neck area of the unsuspecting player.
The worst part was what happened immediately afterward. While Kuhnhackl was hunched over and extremely vulnerable after taking the cross-check, the now stickless Calvert turned back and nailed him with a shoulder hit to the head.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety issued a one-playoff-game suspension. In its explanation video, the Department specified it as a playoff game because in suspension terms one playoff game is equal to two regular season games. They correctly identified the cross-check was to the shoulder, but noted it was not a hockey play and was excessively violent. They also acknowledged the hit to a highly vulnerable Kuhnhackl after the fact.
The serious problem here is the suspension was mainly given only because this incident was classified as “message sending.” Not because someone nowhere near the play and who wasn’t eligible to be hit got targeted. Not because a defenseless and (still) ineligible player was hit with a direct head shot. In other words, it wasn’t the actual act that was being scrutinized, but the situation in which it occurred.
No Harm, No Foul
The style of punishing the circumstances or the result of an infraction instead of the actual mechanics of the act itself has never worked. It’s the reason for the inconsistency there is with each disciplinary decision. If the score had been 2-1 with five minutes left, would the cross check have magically become any less violent? Would Kuhnhackl have magically become any less ineligible to be hit? With Kuhnhackl not seriously injured, does that change how wrong it was to make the decision to hit him in the first place?
If intent or situation does become a factor in suspensions, it needs to be looked at the same way an injury is. No one is suspended just for injuring another player. Injuries from legal plays happen all the time. There are also plenty of suspensions where no injury occurs. The injury only comes into play to decide suspension length after supplementary discipline is determined to be necessary.
It should be the same with message-sending. The cross-check was either dangerous or it wasn’t. The hit after was either dangerous or it wasn’t. Decide on that. Then, if a suspension is needed, the option is there to tack on an extra game or two if the infraction is considered message-sending.
Otherwise, it undermines the precedent set by previous suspensions for similar plays. How can we tolerate a one or two-game suspension to a player who delivers a hockey play hit on an eligible opponent but accidentally makes head contact where suspension is based on the head contact alone, and also accept the same length suspension to a player who makes a non-hockey play hit on an ineligible opponent and intentionally makes head contact when the suspension is based on the score?
Lost in Translation
A one-game Calvert suspension for message-sending would have been much easier to accept had it been in addition to a one-game (therefore two-game equivalent) suspension for cross-checking. That would send an easy-to-interpret message that violent cross-checks away from the course of play won’t be tolerated, and if you do it in a blowout, you’ll be dinged even harder. Unfortunately, with a one-game punishment for message-sending, Calvert did a much better job of getting his message through than the Department of Player Safety did.
Just hours after the suspension was announced, Chicago got blasted by Nashville, 5-0. They’d already been shut out in Game 1, and Game 2 was clearly out of hand. With just 1:30 left to play, Chicago’s Ryan Hartman hit Nashville’s Craig Smith with a clean hit, knocking him down. Seeing a defenseless Smith on his knees, Hartman then gave him a purposeful cross-check to the face.
Now, what are the options from the NHL? The cross-check, in this case, was clearly worse than Calvert’s in that he actually made indisputable head contact, but it was also less severe in the sense that it wasn’t nearly as violent. None of that matters, mind you. With the precedent set in the afternoon that deliberate head contact in and of itself is acceptable in the playoffs, there can’t be a deliberate head contact-based suspension in the evening. So the only choice they’ve left themselves with is to base any supplementary discipline on whether or not they feel it was message-sending.
At 5-0, it’s plausible to suspend Hartman here based on message-sending. But again, if the only reason to suspend is message-sending then that’s opening up too broad a can of worms. If Hartman had simply given Smith a punch, would we be asking about a suspension? Maybe. A punch to the head of a vulnerable opponent could be construed as sending a message, but it depends on the violence. So it’s back to square one in deciding first whether the actual infraction is suspension worthy. If the infraction has to be bad enough to be suspend-able before we consider whether it was message sending, then what’s the point of having a “message sending” suspension in the first place? What if it had been a face wash? Where do we draw the line?
So it’s back to square one in deciding first whether the actual infraction is suspension worthy. If the infraction has to be bad enough to be suspendable before we consider whether it was message-sending, then what’s the point of having a “message-sending” suspension in the first place? What if it had been a face wash? Where do we draw the line?
Do we start seeing suspensions for the next player who utters a threat such as “make sure you have your chin strap done up next game because I’m going to rip your helmet off with my elbow?” That’s a message, isn’t it? Suspending all of those isn’t realistic, yet they can’t pick and choose what a message-sending incident is and isn’t. What they can do is move already clearly defined suspendable offences into the message-sending category after the fact to extend the already deserved suspension’s length. At least, they could have.
Showing Your Hand
Now that the die has been cast with Calvert, for the remainder of this playoff year the Department of Player Safety can no longer legitimately suspend anyone for any head shot, deliberate or not, and they can no longer suspend anyone for anything less than the most violent stick infraction in a close game.
That’s why Hartman was let off the hook. It looks inconsistent but it was all they could do. They’ve officially tied themselves in a knot. All we can do is wait and see how many more helpless victims there will be before the season resets and they can finally climb back out of their own message-sending hole.
Josh is a minor hockey development coordinator who’s big on player development and player safety. Founder and writer of Tough Call, Josh also contributes to Let’s Talk Pens.