Wheel of Justice: Evaluating the Wisniewski & Hjalmarsson Suspensions

Columbus Day was an active day in the NHL. 14 teams were in action, and a good chunk of them were teams with serious playoff aspirations. Two of the games ratcheted up the emotion more than the rest, however, and those were the Blackhawks-Sabres and Rangers-Islanders tilts.

The Hawks went down early in their game 2-0, but managed to fight back and win a 4-3 nail-biter at HSBC Arena. The Isles and Rangers went back and forth in an offensive slugfest, before the Islanders eventually prevailed 6-4.

The real stories of both of those games, however, had nothing to do with highlight reel goals or spectacular saves. The most intriguing events of the two contests both occurred when players exercised extremely poor judgment, but that common factor is where the similarities end.

In the Rangers-Isles tilt, Islander defenseman James Wisniewski was involved in a bit of a fracas in front of the Isles net with Rangers left winger Sean Avery. After a little bit of pushing and shoving, Wisniewski gave Avery an obscene gesture to remember him by:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dI1Q2AY1-Eo

Today, the NHL announced that Wisniewski will be suspended for two games for his actions, and he appears not to have any plans to appeal the ruling.

On the opposite side of New York state, the Blackhawks-Sabres game was marred by a violent hit by Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who hit Buffalo RW Jason Pominville in the back and sent his head into the boards.

TSN’s Bob McKenize reported this afternoon that the NHL had suspended Hjalmarsson for two games as well, which will allow him to face the Sabres on Saturday night when Buffalo visits the United Center. Patrick Kaleta also promised that Buffalo would seek some type of retribution against Hjalmarsson in the Saturday showdown.

With the two suspensions handed down this afternoon, the question comes up as it always does when Colin Campbell dispenses his unique brand of justice: were the suspensions fair? Did Wisniewski’s gesture and Hjalmarsson’s hit really warrant the same punishment?

Wisniewski’s Gesture

The NHL has already issued a punishment this autumn for a gesture made on the ice during a game, suspending Blackhawks defenseman Nick Boynton for a game because of a throat-slashing gesture that he made after a fight during a pre-season game against Tampa Bay.

This is also the league that suspended the aforementioned Avery six games for making a lewd comment about his ex-girlfriend (and at the time Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf’s main squeeze) Elisha Cuthbert. The comment and suspension cost Avery his spot with the Dallas Stars, and eventually landed him with the Rangers.

James Wisniewski (Monica McAlister/THW)

These two situations were brought up because they illustrate how the NHL tries to legislate a moral code among its players. Making threatening gestures or lewd comments are considered unacceptable by the NHL, and they have displayed a willingness to punish violators of that policy on multiple occasions.

With that in mind, was the league’s suspension of Wisniewski for two games for his grotesque gesture toward Avery in Monday’s game warranted? After all, it’s not as though he threatened to physically harm Avery, and he didn’t actually make contact with him in this instance.

The simple answer to this question is no. Yes, what Wisniewski did was reprehensible, juvenile, and stupid, but it did not rise to the level of a suspension-worthy offense. Just because he did something in bad taste does not mean that the league should be within its rights to keep him off the ice for several games, and their decision to suspend him for two games hurts an already depleted Islanders’ roster.

The league was right to hold Wisniewski accountable for the act (the fact that it came during a matinee game on a day where most kids didn’t have school and countless youngsters were watching the contest makes it more deplorable), but they went about it the wrong way. What they should have done is assess Wisniewski a substantial fine, and leave it at that.

If they wanted to go after him for a bit more than just a couple thousand dollars, they could have compelled him to attend sensitivity training, in much the same way that the Chicago White Sox had manager Ozzie Guillen attend classes on the matter after the Jay Mariotti incident.

There certainly would have been some criticism that the league was being too soft on him, but the punishment would have been more appropriate for the infraction committed. Wisniewski would have been a little lighter in the wallet, and he and the league would have been given an opportunity to get some publicity for being progressive in their attitude toward this type of behavior.

Instead, the league is made to look foolish for suspending a player for two more games for a gesture than they did for a guy (Matt Cooke) who took a cheap shot at another player’s head (Marc Savard). The Wisniewski suspension was a miscarriage of justice, and really serves no other purpose than to bring ridicule onto the heads of those in charge of the league.

Hjalmarsson’s Blind-side Hit

A mere couple of hours after announcing Wisniewski’s fate, the NHL also announced that Hjalmarsson had been suspended for two games for his hit on Pominville. This comes in the wake of several promises by the league during the off-season that they were going to clean the game up, and prevent some of the catastrophic head injuries that have been sustained by players over the past few years.

While the hits by Matt Cooke and Mike Richards were both questionable at best and completely malicious at worst, the hit by Hjalmarsson seems to fit into a grayer area. Watching the replay, it appears as though Pominville turned his head toward Niklas several times before contact was made, and that would negate the notion that Jason was completely blind-sided.

Niklas Hjalmarsson (Flickr/JDBPhotography)

In addition, the hit wasn’t directly to Pominville’s head, and was instead aimed between his shoulder blades. It may not have been the smartest thing to hit him there, but Hjalmarsson certainly wasn’t trying to be malicious with the shot.

Finally, there is the matter of Pominville not having the puck. It is nearly impossible to tell if the young Swedish defenseman thought that Pominville was about to get the puck (which was rolling toward him along the boards), but he never had possession of it at all, so an interference call could have easily been justified as well.

So how fair was Hjalmarsson’s two game suspension?

While a lot of media talking heads were recommending punishments of upwards of five games, it was rather surprising to see Niklas only get two games. The NHL, as mentioned above, has been looking to start making examples of players who deliver violent blind-side hits, so it seemed as though the Hjalmarsson hit was the first litmus test of the new policies. Needless to say, the decision seems like it is just business as usual.

The reality of the situation is that the decision was actually the right one. Yes, Hjalmarsson displayed incredibly poor judgment on the hit, and he did deserve to be suspended for it, but the lack of blatant maliciousness, as well as the main point of contact being the shoulder and not the head, makes it difficult to argue for a much stiffer penalty for Hjalmarsson.

Final Thought

The league’s insistence on continuing to punish bad personal and non-violent conduct with suspensions is mind-boggling. There is no rational reason why a guy making a gesture like the one Wisniewski made should be suspended for the same amount of games as a guy who drilled a guy’s head into the boards, whether intentionally or not.

Once again, the NHL proved today that it is capable of making some very questionable judgments when it comes to suspending players. They also proved that they can get one right every now and again, so once again we are left to hope that they finally get things figured out, and make their punishments fit the crimes committed. If you’re feeling that way tonight, here’s a piece of advice: don’t hold your breath.