In the wake of yet another spearing incident and the league’s response to the Matt Cooke kneeing incident, a few thoughts:
The spearing first.
Last Friday night, midway through the first period of game 5 of the semifinal series between Anaheim and Dallas, Corey Perry of the Ducks headed onto the ice as Ryan Garbutt of the Stars passed by, heading for his bench. He speared Perry in the groin and was immediately assessed a misconduct and ejected from the game. Perry left the ice but returned to action in short order.
The speculation was this was a payback move by Garbutt, standing up for his teammate Jamie Benn, who was speared in game 2 by—you guessed it—Corey Perry, who not only wasn't thrown out of the game but was given just a two-minute minor, for slashing.
The NHL has only itself to blame for this nonsense because of the way it handled the first spearing incident of the post-season—in game 1 of the series between Boston and Detroit. In the closing seconds of what turned out to be a 1-0 victory by the Red Wings, Detroit defenseman Danny DeKeyser completed a clean check on Milan Lucic of the Bruins, who promptly followed DeKeyser and then, with DeKeyser’s back turned, delivered a jab to his groin and then turned around to see if anyone in stripes had witnessed his handiwork.
No one did. But the league did have an opportunity to make amends when the incident was subsequently reviewed by the Department of Player Safety. Their decision was sadly predictable: Another toothless fine—$5,000, for a player who earned $6.5 million this season.
The message the league seemed to be sending was not only that this kind of behavior wasn’t that heinous, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the actions of Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville: While arguing a call with officials during one of their early playoff games against St. Louis, he grabbed his crotch and was fined $25,000.
So are we supposed to infer that what Lucic did is five times less serious than Coach Joel grabbing his quennevilles?
And here’s the other, more serious point:
The league’s non-handling of Lucic’s transgression clearly opened the door for players like Perry and now Garbutt to wield their sticks in ways that have long been considered absolutely taboo in a game that’s supposed to be all about respect. And as a result, a dangerous precedent has been set.
(Garbutt was subsequently fined $1,474,36, which is the maximum amount allowable under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement. How and why the cost of committing this dangerous and gutless act is deemed so embarrassingly nominal by the NHLPA is a topic for another day.)
And speaking of lack of respect and dangerous precedents....we come to the latest on Matt Cooke.
The Minnesota Wild forward was suspended seven games for his knee-to-knee hit on Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie during game 3 of their first-round playoff series. Barrie will need four to six weeks to recover from the torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Let’s set aside for the moment whatever are any personal feelings about Cooke, good or bad. The point here isn’t whether we believe he meant to hurt Barrie, or whether his apology was genuine and heartfelt, or whether we believe he’s the changed player he claims to be. (And don't get me started on the fact that as far as the bylaws of the NHL’s Players Association are concerned, he’s not considered a “repeat offender.”)
No, the point here is how does the act of kneeing any opponent earn only a two-minute penalty? At the very least it needs to be a five-minute major, issued on the spot, just as any other serious transgression should be, subject to further review by the NHL. If it’s subsequently determined to be the result of accidental contact, so be it. But this is a destructive maneuver that needs to be eliminated from the game—now—and the message from the league has to be unwavering and unequivocal.
Until it is, the kneeing incidents are bound to continue, just as purposely errant sticks are going to go on resembling skewers.