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.
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.