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Photo Credit: © Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Optics, my eye

For a league so concerned with optics that it felt the need to fine Milan Lucic of the Edmonton Oilers $10,000 for punk-slapping Mathieu Joseph of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL doesn’t seem capable of seeing the forest for the trees.

Essentially, the NHL fined Lucic the maximum amount allowed, pocket change for him, because the incident with Joseph looked bad. Lucic tracked Joseph down away from the puck and away from the play, levelled him with a body check, punched him once and then straddled him in retribution for a hit-from-behind on Kris Russell. The calls on the ice were roughing, interference and a game misconduct.

I say Lucic let Joseph, who turned down fights with Zack Kassian and Jujhar Khaira earlier, off easy. Despite Joseph’s bravado on the bench after the incident — he was laughing, something I guarantee you he won’t do face-to-face with Lucic in the rematch — Lucic scared the crap out of him. The message was delivered. Lucic could have hurt Joseph if he wanted to, but he showed considerable restraint in my opinion.

Judging by the reaction of some, you’d think what Lucic did was Dave Brown on Jim Kyte. This was not that. That said, these are more delicate times and the optics of Lucic tracking down Joseph to hold him accountable when the on-ice officials chose not to, was enough, in the opinion of the NHL, to warrant the fine. It looked bad, and you just can’t have that. At the same time, this is a league that regularly turns a blind eye to more serious incidents.

THE ISSUE

If the NHL cares about bad optics, it has to do a better job of eliminating hits from behind, like the one that Joseph put on Russell to start this whole thing. These kinds of hits, like the sneaky cross-check from behind — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Washington — when a player is facing the boards occur far too often. If players being pitched head-first into the boards and being helped off the ice, sometimes on stretchers and spine-boards, aren’t bad optics, I don’t know what is.

While the NHL has made eliminating direct blows to the head a focus — I can’t think of anybody who thinks that’s a bad idea knowing what we do about repeated head trauma — I don’t think the DOPS is doing nearly enough to take hits-from-behind out of the game. More times than I can recall, I’ve seen officials look right at plays like this and keep their whistles in their pockets.

That doesn’t justify allowing players to take retribution into their own hands, as Lucic did, but I can certainly understand, given the emotional nature of the game, why players do it. If on-ice officials don’t protect players by calling penalties, teammates will. When players run around unchecked by the zebras, you get the dogpile we got in Tampa Bay.

“We thought he took a liberty of Kris Russell,” coach Todd McLellan said of Joseph. “Part of the reason why we have Looch here is to take care of teammates and he did that.” Ryan Strome had a different take. “I don’t think he should have to do that. I think the referee should take a little more control but the game is high heated. Sometimes you have to protect a guy.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

We’ve seen the game change a great deal over the last decade, in many cases for the better. I’m as old school as it gets, but even I understand the game can’t be played now the way it was in the good old, bad old days, given what we know. There was a time when I felt Brown giving Kyte the business like he did was just fine — Kyte, after all, was throwing punches while flat on his back. Brown simply chose to keep throwing too. That scene won’t fly today, and it shouldn’t.

Making the transition to where we are now without taking away all the emotion and passion that makes hockey a great game, requires that the NHL establish solid guidelines about what is OK and what isn’t and that on-ice officials enforce those guidelines. That can be done without turning the NHL into the No Hit League. A play like Joseph made on Russell has to be called every time it happens.

Until then, we’re going to get what we saw unfold in Tampa Bay. As much as I think Lucic delivered the message Joseph deserved without going overboard about it, it’s a message better sent by the league itself regarding what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    What pisses me off the most about this, is the fact that nobody (except us) talks about Joseph’s hit on Russell. They just talk about this and paint Lucic like a guy who did this because he’s a) a scumbag and b) can’t do anything else. There was a reason for this. There IS a “method to his madness”. It’s digusting. Joseph had it coming, and good on Milan for delivering the message.

    Don’t **** with us, you’ll regret it.

      • camdog

        If Lucic makes that same hit it’s a 5 minute penalty, a game misconduct and a multi game suspension. It’s nothing personnel between the league and Lucic, just basic physics. Big guys make bad hits like that and the other guy ends up spending the night in the hospital.

        • QuitForRealThisTime

          Even if there was no serious injury from the hit Lucic has a “reputation”. Which is just the NHL way. Rather then making a call because it is an illegal play. There is a lot of “game management” that goes on. I get that the game is fast and and many many plays are really hard to make a subjective call. But an illegal play should be called regardless of the score, time of the year, reputation etc.

    • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

      To clarify, I’m not calling Milan a scumbag. I’m saying they’re doing it to validate their point of view.

      Also it’s Don’t **** with us, or you’ll regret it

  • Himynameistaylor

    The Hockey News article about the Lucic play was atrocious. Ken Campbell even admitted he didn’t watch the hit on Russell but felt Lucic’s actions have no place in the league. Typical east coast bias. I wonder if it were Matthews doing the same thing what the media response would be like. They’d probably be erecting a golden idol in the centre of Toronto in his honour.

    • Derian Hatcher

      Ken Campbell and the HN in general are a shadow of their former selves. It’s merely a rag now – which is quite sad compared to the Hockey Bible it used to be.

    • Nothing to do with east coast bias. Ken has always had a bee in his bonnet when it comes to fighting in hockey and in particular, fights that arise because of “the code.” He was that way 20 years ago, he’s that way now. It isn’t going to change. If you look on Twitter, I questioned him about the article you mentioned. It’s black and white for Ken — he hates the idea of players policing the game. Doesn’t matter what team, what player. It’s just his opinion on the subject and there’s no changing it.

      • Himynameistaylor

        The articles sewering the oilers? Ranking Talbot 27th out of all 31 starters? The writing on that site/zine went out the window when Adam Proteau was let go. Yeah I agree on Campbell and his view on fighting but what really sticks out to me is the admitted negligence. He doesn’t even try to comprehend why Lucic did it. You don’t have to agree with a concept but you have to be a bit daffy to not understand why it happens. Which he comes across as.

    • Katz & Chia.
      Chia: We should do this.
      Katz: Is this going to improve our team?
      Chia: Yes
      Katz: Is this going to cost us money?
      Chia : Yes, but he has a proven track record with young superstars. We owe it to our fan base.
      Katz: Not sure what that has to do with anything, what did Kevin and Craig have to say?
      Chia: I did not ask them, remember we keep telling the public they are not involved.
      Katz: Oh yeah, forgot about that, anyways better run it by them first, If we can get another dollar per drink and a couple of extra bucks for the burgers, you might be on to something, if the guys we say are not involved approve it, as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, go right ahead.
      Chia: Sigh, I should have stayed in Boston.

  • ziyan94

    Jamie McLennan on TSN summed it up best “if Lucic wanted to do something, that kid (Joseph) would still be laying there”.
    Time to move on, and hopefully Lucic won’t have to send a real message anytime soon.

  • “More times than I can recall, I’ve seen officials look right at plays like this and keep their whistles in their pockets.”

    Too many times.
    I have no problem with what the big man did, I hope his mates appreciate it.

  • Heschultzhescores

    Put a Looch tip jar at the bar next Oiler home game. Let the fans speak with their wallets as to whether they liked it or not. Like Jaws, they’ll need a bigger jar.

  • CMG30

    I agree with everything you’ve said Brownlee.

    The Zebras are human and they’re going to miss things. That’s understandable. For dangerous cases, like hits from behind that get missed, the league should have the situation room in Toronto call the scorekeeper who flags the Refs at the next stoppage of play to assess the penalty.

    • Towers-of-dub

      they’d be calling down at every whistle. There’s always going to be some marginal call that got missed. There’s already 4 officials on the ice. A serious offense shouldn’t get missed.

  • Goaltender Interference

    This article is right on. Watch any shift that McDavid is on the oceans you’ll see all kinds of hackery going on that the refs turn a blind eye to.

    The league is complicit. But yeah, sorry – I know I sound like a broken record on the subject. It’s one of the reasons the NHL is seeing a lot less of my cash this season.

    • Goaltender Interference

      I swear this website changes what you write as soon as you hit Post Comment… where the hell did ‘oceans’ come from in my last post? Lol.

  • Jaxon

    I know this will be very unpopular but Joseph barely hit Russell from behind. Russell was turning towards Joseph and it was more of a rub than a hit. How Russell went into the boards was unfortunate but I don’t think Joseph’s hit was all that dirty. We see worse hits that go unnoticed every game.

    • Jaxon: The hit on Russell wasn’t a rub out. Joseph ran around all game. Lucic didn’t “blindside” Joseph. You either weren’t paying attention or you’re just looking for a reaction. Either way, you sound foolish.

      • Jaxon

        “Foolish”, really? The copper and blue tinted glasses are thick here. How did he not blindside him? Do you really think he was ready to be levelled? The puck was nowhere near him. And Joesph wasn’t looking at Lucic when he got hit because he didn’t think he needed to be worried about getting hit that far away from the play. It was cowardly by Lucic. He could have waited for Joesph to have the puck, but he didn’t. It was a classless move by Lucic.

        Watch his head bounce off the ice from the hit he clearly wasn’t prepared for, and then when Lucic punched him when he was still wondering what the hell just happened. I’m surprised and he’s lucky he didn’t get a concussion or some serious deck damage with the whiplash when he hit the ice. So yes, it could have been as bad as the Bertuzzi-Moore incident. Luckily, it wasn’t. I think Lucic lost his temper, did something stupid, realized it halfway through and stopped himself from doing further damage.

        In the highlight reel you linked showing players hit from behind near the boards, McDavid did one against Oduya of Dallas that was way worse than Joseph on Russell. How crazy would we Oiler fans be right now if Jamie Oleksiak chased him down in the corner and hit him nowhere near the puck, bounced his head off the ice, then punched him to bounce his head off the ice again? And then climbed on top of him and basically started strangling him. People would be losing their flipping minds. But, no, it’s fine when Lucic does it to someone else.

        • Beer_League_Ringer

          Honestly, what are you talking about and why are you still talking about it? Joseph hit Russell and his face/head hit the glass. Lucic retaliated, which is part of his job, and bounced the kid’s head off the ice. Hockey is a tough sport and all the comparisons (more like straw men) you bring up are unrelated to this incident, especially in severity. Grow a set.

    • nbandito

      I haven’t seen the full game, but from what I saw and what I’ve read, It’s not only about that hit on Russell from behind, it’s about his actions and disrespect for our players throughout the game. Tooth for a tooth and be done with it.

    • Jaxon

      By the way, I do think there should have been a penalty on Joseph, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary except that Russell appeared hurt after it. There are half a dozen similar hits every game that should be called.

      • Jaxon

        Also, Lucic is very lucky Jospeh wasn’t seriously hurt. Watch how his head bounces off the ice on the blindside hit, and then again when Lucic punches him when he’s defenceless. I’m surprised there wasn’t a concussion or worse. And there should be no place for that in hockey. I think Lucic got off with a slap on the wrist. Done right, Lucic would have hit him cleanly when he had the puck, not stalked him and hit him when he didn’t expect it. That’s how careers are ended.

        • Glencontrolurstik

          “Blindside” hit? Are you fargon kidding me? Looch tapped him on the back of the legs with his stick (with his gloves on) asking Joseph to “Go”. All Joseph could do was “turtle” to the corner. When you get “Blindside” hit you have no idea the hit is coming. He was invited to atone for his wrong-doings and turtled, …
          I might point out as well that Lucic’s gloves NEVER once came off during the whole incident. And, as shown, in the picture above the Rookie was just being talked to. I believe that Joseph was laughing after the fact nervously in relief of not being “Looched”. That, what you called a “concussion or worse” punch was an open handed, glove on, slap…
          You my friend have been watching Waaaay to much FIFA…