Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece
Once again, the NHL shows its favoritism and lack of understanding of its administrative role in the game of hockey. By not addressing the overtly intentional hit that Detroit Red Wing Todd Bertuzzi laid on Chicago Blackhawk Ryan Johnson, the League is opening itself up to major scrutiny just weeks after all of the strong, apparently hollow talk at the General Managers’ Meetings in Florida.
Time and time again we have been told that the result of any kind of head shot does not dictate the penalty, fine or suspension that the league may hand out; the focus is on the act and the intent.
Yet last night, the fact that Ryan Johnson took one for the team, stitched up by the trainers and came back out on the ice, suddenly the hit wasn’t so bad. Was this the reason why Colin Campbell, Director of Operations for the NHL, decided not to even call a hearing on the hit? I believe so.
If the league is as serious as it claims to be regarding headshots and concussions, it could have at least placated to the players, coaches, fans and executives by calling a hearing on the hit. It would have gone a long way to temper accusations that the league is all talk and no action.
This would have also made the league officially write up its reasoning for not penalizing Bertuzzi further, giving those of us outside of Toronto a better insight into what really are the decision-making factors involved.
According to Rule 48.1—Illegal Check to the Head—A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.
Let’s revisit the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. Those who chose to defend Chara claimed that there was no intent. While I argue that call, in the case of Bertuzzi and Johnson, the intent is clearly there.
Bertuzzi blindsided Johnson by moving backwards, jumping in the air and leveling an elbow to Johnson’s head, a hit so hard that it knocked his helmet off and took off part of his ear, which required stitches.
So, Mr. Campbell, what is it? “Well, Todd went and apologized so it all good”? “Bertuzzi has been behaving more or less for the past year, so, let’s cut him some slack.” There is nothing but utter arbitrariness in their decisions. Is it the league or is it Campbell?
What Campbell and apparently the entire NHL are missing here is the fact that it is their job to protect the integrity of the game. It is their job to treat each incident within the context of what is best for the game, not who the players are that are involved.
Ask yourself if someone had hit a scoring leader or Norris Trophy prospect like that. Would there have been a hearing? This is my second point—Johnson isn’t a high-profile player and is smaller in size. Bertuzzi is a big guy, he can do some damage therefore the stitches that Johnson required were almost expected. That’s the price you pay for being a little guy, literally and figuratively, in the NHL?
Is the NHL acting consistently when addressing headshots?
We are hearing reports now that immediately after the incident, when Johnson was being looked at by the training staff, Bertuzzi sought out Johnson and apologized, expressing that he wasn’t intending to injure.
Some commentators are stating (i.e. NHL Live) that the league may have decided not to penalize Bertuzzi any further because of this apology.
While that is a nice gesture, it means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Bertuzzi jumped in the air and forcibly elbowed his opponent. So, Mr. Campbell, players just need to apologize and that is all it takes now? Where is this in the rulebook?
The Blackhawks need to take their position as defending Stanley Cup champions, and as an organization, Stan Bowman, Chicago’s General Manager, needs to step up and request a formal investigation, which is well within their province, and make the league officially justify two major points:
1) Why there was no initial hearing?
2) Why there was no further suspension?
The league needs to work (much) harder at making sure that its public comments and discussions consistently reflect its actions.
Regardless of whether you feel this hit should have been penalized further with additional game suspensions or not, I am sure you can agree that the league’s inconsistency opens it up for ongoing criticism, which is never good for the game.
UPDATE: Here is an AHL article dealing with a similar blindsided hit and the the suspension process - arbitrary is the only word to describe it. (Hat Tip - Third Man In)