The NHL has promoted a safety-first workplace over the past four years. With intense scrutiny on one of the more violent mainstream sports today, and the increased awareness of concussions, the league has buckled down on illegal contact to the head. Until today.
Near the end of the Red Wings' Game 1 loss to Nashville, Predators defenseman Shea Weber punched, then grabbed the back of Wings center Henrik Zetterberg's head, and slammed it, face-first into the glass as a retaliation for getting hit from behind.
Zetterberg crumpled to the ice and his teammates on the ice came after Weber. Naturally, the Nashville players came to the defense of their captain, which resulted in an exchange between Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi and Nashville's Paul Gaustad.
Zetterberg eventually got to his feet but appeared stunned and slightly dazed. The Swede was administered, and passed, concussion tests after the game, proclaiming himself okay and ready to go for Friday's Game 2.
Upon review of the incident, the league fined Weber $2,500 (the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement) and NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan issued the following statement Thursday afternoon:
This was a reckless and reactionary play on which Weber threw a glancing punch and then shoved Zetterberg's head into the glass. As is customary whenever Supplemental Discipline is being considered, we contacted Detroit following the game and were informed that Zetterberg did not suffer an apparent injury and should be in the lineup for Game 2.
This play and the fine that addressed it will be significant factors in assessing any incidents involving Shea Weber throughout the remainder of the playoffs.
So, since Zetterberg passed concussion tests and is tough, Weber gets a mulligan?! My immediate thought after hearing of this decision was, "What is Darren McCarty doing Friday night?" Then I realized that Weber can probably handle himself against the best and most physical players Detroit might throw at him.
Weber gets a fine that is approximately .00035714 percent of his salary for a deliberate punch, then a full slam of an opponent's head into the glass? There isn't a makeup call that can go the other way Shanny. There aren't going to be any other incidents like this involving Shea Weber in the playoffs—there is no way to make this right. You had every angle to review this, and it doesn't matter if Zetterberg got hurt or not.
The only possible explanation I can think of that makes an ounce of sense is this. If Shanahan suspends Weber as a result of his actions, what kind of bias will people think he has in favor of his former employer, the Detroit Red Wings? One of his first acts as "Lord of Discipline" was to suspend Wings rookie defenseman Brendan Smith eight games for his hit in a preseason game. But that is the only example I can think of involving Shanahan and the Wings this year.
The NHL has a publicity problem, and did itself no favors here. I don't think that players will start randomly punching people in the back of the head, but what happens if they do? The Penguins just got their captain and NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby back after a year out from an unintentional head shot. His teammate Matt Cooke provides the prime example of the kind of head shots that the NHL is trying to rid itself of. How are his past actions different from Weber's?
What was the right decision for the Weber incident?
I would actually be okay with the first punch—Zetterberg hit him from behind at the end of the game, and it probably pissed Weber off. It was a willful act, however, to grab his head and slam it into the glass. Matt Cooke had less intent when he elbowed the Boston Bruins' Marc Savard a while back. Both were vicious and both went unpunished. Cooke's because, for some reason elbows to the face were still legal at the time of the incident in 2010.
Should we wait until the NHL specifically bans incidents where players heads are grabbed and then smashed face-first into the wall before we discipline players? One could argue that a dangerous precedent has been set by the league, and I would argue that the NHL took a step in the wrong direction. If Shanahan was trying too hard not to do Detroit any favors, he made himself look like the driver of Gary Bettman's little clown car.
Follow Rob Kirk on Twitter @theRobKirk