COMMENTARY: Over the last few weeks, the Los Angeles Kings have been involved in two incidents involving blows to the head of a player. Both times, the player who was hit suffered an injury, and in each case, a player was suspended. Perhaps even worse, both incidents have shined a bright light on the fact that it isn’t just fans who don’t know the rules, but apparently, National Hockey League players, coaches and general managers don’t either, and the fault for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the NHL.
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Almost one month ago, Los Angeles Kings winger Dustin Brown was suspended two games, without pay, for elbowing Minnesota Wild forward Jason Pominville at 10:04 of the second period in a game at Minnesota on April 23, a 2-1 Wild victory.
No penalty was called on the play.
Just prior to, and immediately after the decision by National Hockey League Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan was announced, the vast majority of Kings fans were up in arms about the decision, claiming it was a clean hit, and that Brown was a victim of circumstance because of Pominville’s positioning as he approached Brown (slightly low).
Others claimed that supplementary discipline was not warranted because there was no intent involved on Brown’s part.
Fast forward to May 14…Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals with the Kings hosting the San Jose Sharks at Staples Center, when Sharks winger Raffi Torres hit Kings center Jarret Stoll with a heavy blow to the head.
As one might expect, the majority of Kings fans cried foul immediately, while most Sharks fans believed it was a clean hit.
Of course, loyalties influence how people see things. Nevertheless, it is both shocking and deeply disappointing to see how people can have such diametrically opposing views of the same incident, the same video footage.
In fact, even the players and coaches from the two teams had completely different views.
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said he thought the hit by Torres on Stoll was “careless.”
“I think everyone in this room will probably not be happy about it, and everyone in their room is OK with it,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “It’s up to what the league thinks.”
As for what the Sharks thought, Brown was dead on.
Immediately after the hit, Sharks players, along with head coach Todd McLellan, were adamant that the hit was clean, stating that it was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit.
“I was on the ice, right beside it,” said Sharks center Logan Couture. “I thought it was shoulder-to-shoulder, a clean hit. Obviously, [Stoll] was injured on the play, so you hope the other guy is OK, but from what I saw, it was a clean hit.”
“I was surprised there was even a penalty on the play,” added Couture. “He didn’t charge him. He was two feet away from him when he hit him.”
“We questioned the call on the charging penalty, to be honest with you,” said Sharks captain Joe Thornton. “We were kind of shocked today to hear that he has to fly to New York for a hearing, because we didn’t see anything wrong on the play.”
“It’s unfortunate that Jarret was hurt, but we just thought it was a clean hit,” he added. “It looked to us like it was shoulder-to-shoulder. Jarret was down a little bit low, and Raffi just finished his check.”
On May 16, Torres was in New York, accompanied by Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, for an in-person hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. As a result of that hearing, Torres was suspended for the remainder of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Shanahan ruled that Torres made initial contact with Stoll’s shoulder, but the principal point of contact was Stoll’s head, making the hit illegal, a violation of Rule 48.1:
Rule 48.1 – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
As the video provided by the league conclusively shows (see below), Torres did indeed make initial contact with Stoll’s right shoulder. However, there was much greater contact with Stoll’s head—Torres’ left shoulder made full contact with Stoll’s head.
Stoll suffered a suspected concussion, and is not expected to return anytime soon. One indication of that is that his locker stall in the Kings dressing room at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California (their practice facility) is now occupied by forward prospect Linden Vey, one of the Kings’ “Black Aces.”
Apparently still fuming about the loss of his player, Wilson issued a statement on May 17, supporting Torres and heavily criticizing Shanahan’s decision.
“The Sharks organization fully supports the NHL in its efforts to remove illegal and dangerous hits from the game, but we strongly disagree with the NHL’s decision to suspend Raffi Torres,” Wilson said in a statement.
“Upon review of the incident, it is abundantly clear that this was a clean hockey hit,” Wilson added. “As noted by the NHL, Raffi’s initial point of contact was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on an opponent who was playing the puck. He did not leave his feet or elevate, he kept his shoulder tucked and elbow down at his side, and he was gliding—not skating or charging.”
Already, it is crystal-clear that Wilson either does not understand Rule 48.1, or he is making a poor and blatantly obvious, yet deceptive attempt to placate Sharks fans by standing up to the league.
In the above paragraph, Wilson said that Torres’ “…initial point of contact was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit.” But Rule 48.1 says nothing about the initial point of contact. Rather, it specifies the principal point of contact.
To be sure, “principal” and “initial” are not interchangeable, as they do not mean the same thing.
Principal – adjective (prin·ci·pal) \ˈprin(t)-s(ə-)pəl, -sə-bəl\
1: most important, consequential, or influential: chief
Ini·tial – adjective \i-ˈni-shəl\
1: of or relating to the beginning: incipient
2: placed at the beginning: first
Wilson goes further off the deep end.
“As stated in the NHL’s Player Safety video, Rule 48.1 says, ‘A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.’”
“Thus, with the use of the word ‘and,’ this rule clearly states that two elements must occur in order to violate the rule. Raffi absolutely did not target his opponent’s head on the play. The call on the ice specifically acknowledged that the head was not targeted and nowhere in the NHL’s ruling does it insinuate or suggest that the opponent’s head was targeted.”
Wilson’s interpretation of Rule 48.1 is both ludicrous and disingenuous, and his argument is fatally flawed and utterly transparent.
Indeed, what Wilson is saying is that for the rule to apply, a player must act with premeditation. That is, he must go into the hit with the specific intent of hitting a player in the head, and make it the initial point of contact.
As Colonel Sherman T. Potter would often say in the classic television series, M*A*S*H…
If Wilson really believes that interpretation of Rule 48.1, he would be akin to a strict constructionist when it comes to interpreting the Constitution of the United States. Of course, neither the Congress of the United States, nor the American judicial system, operate by strictly interpreting that living document.
Rule 48.1 could certainly be interpreted as Wilson suggests. However, that was not the interpretation, nor was it the spirit of the rule as it was intended to be when it was approved by the NHL Board of Governors.
As such, Wilson’s interpretation of the rule is desperate, lame, and ill-conceived. After all, if intent was required as a criterion, Rule 48.1 would be totally useless, as intent would be impossible to prove in virtually every case.
Where Wilson’s intent becomes transparent is in the statement’s attempt to deceive. Again, he incorrectly referred to the initial point of contact, which is not part of the rule. As such, Wilson is claiming for the rule to be applied, a player must have intentionally targeted a players’ head and the head must be the initial point of contact.
The result of that would be an even greater watering down of the rule, making it even more useless. It would also make for a very convenient argument, to be sure. After all, if that was the way the rule actually read, Torres would be cleared on both counts.
Is Wilson, like so many others, that ignorant of the rules? Or is he banking on the fact that since so many fans (throughout the league, not just in San Jose) don’t know the rules, that by releasing this inaccurate, flawed statement, he’ll make himself and the Sharks franchise look good and appease their fans?
While the former may or may not be true, the latter is very likely to be. After all, Wilson went on to say, “…Raffi does not want to be a distraction to his teammates and has decided not to appeal this suspension and we respect that decision.”
What? Neither Torres or the Sharks will appeal the suspension, even though they made such a strong case (in their eyes) against it, and further, that it could be on shaky ground without a specific number of games for the suspension (could be a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement)?
All that does is add a rather foul stench to Wilson’s words. After all, Wilson was adamant in his statement that the hit was clean, and that the league screwed up in its investigation, not to mention its application of Rule 48.1. Remember, he said that they, “…strongly disagree with the NHL’s decision to suspend Raffi Torres.”
If they really believed that they had such a strong case, Torres and Wilson would have already begun the appeal process. The fact that they will not appeal casts tremendous doubt about their true motivations in this matter.
UPDATE – 2:37 PM PDT: The NHL has fined the Sharks for the comments made by Wilson in the public statement, referenced (linked above) in this story. In their announcement of the fine, the league stated, “The fine was issued for violation of League Rules that prohibit formal team statements to the media during the 48-hour period following a disciplinary decision. The Rule calls for an automatic fine of $25,000. The Sharks were fined an additional $75,000 under Article 6 of the League’s Constitution due to the inappropriate nature of the comments.”
Reform and Education Are Needed
While it is fairly obvious that Wilson was trying to pull a fast one just to placate Sharks fans, when you go back to the point of how the view of fans, players and general managers can be so diametrically opposed in such cases, and then you look again at Wilson’s cleverly crafted (but still transparent) statement that tried to take advantage of the general lack of knowledge about the rules, one conclusion must be noted…
This is all the league’s fault.
As I wrote after the Brown/Pominville incident last month, despite the league’s noble efforts over the past couple of years, supplementary discipline in the NHL is as much of a joke as it ever was.
Whether it is due to inconsistency in rulings on similar incidents, or simple ignorance of the rules, fans, media and pundits, right on up to players, coaches, and general managers—all still have virtually no clue about what is worthy of a fine or suspension and what isn’t.
Although the NHL has made some efforts to educate everyone about the rules, more must be done. A bigger problem is the inconsistency in rulings on similar incidents. Much of that is due to the fact that injuries, and their severity, are factors that are considered in supplementary discipline decisions.
Again, as I wrote a few weeks ago, this is where the NHL has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Indeed, if the NHL ever decides to really get serious about deterring bad hits and stick-related incidents, whether they are the result of malicious intent, or just recklessness, they must stop making the result of such incidents a major factor in such decisions. Instead, the act itself should be the determining factor. After all, similar, if not almost identical incidents can cause different injuries, varying degrees of injury, or no injury at all.
The result of such incidents has absolutely no bearing on whether or not malicious intent was involved, if it was the result of recklessness, or the degree of recklessness.
As such, there is a clear need to eliminate the use of the result to determine what the appropriate punishment is, not to mention the length of any suspension. Instead, such decisions should be based on the act itself. That would lead to everyone, especially the players, coaches, and general managers, understanding what is allowed, and what isn’t. It would also make it clear what the consequences are for crossing the line, as opposed to now, when the frequently joked about “NHL Wheel of Justice” is just as good at making supplementary discipline decisions as anyone else.
NHL Player Safety Decision on Raffi Torres Suspension
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