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Vengeance and Violence in the NHL’s Modern Age

“With us there is great justice, because that war is just which is necessary, and arms are hallowed when there is no other hope but in them.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Hello Nation,

Well, tonight is the night. After over ten days off, the Edmonton Oilers finally return to the ice, taking on their provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames. If you’re on this site, reading this article (thank you for the support), then you know the deal, recognise the gravity of it, and understand the spectacle that will surround tonight’s game.

Zack Kassian returns from his two-game “aggressor” suspension, with the celestial eyes of the Department of Player Safety  watching closely live (George Parros) and from afar (Colin Campbell) to see whether or not his “emotion” will result in a catastrophe as he sinisterly seeks retribution on his nemesis, Matthew Tkachuk, and perhaps engages Milan Lucic.

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Now, of course, there’s debate on both sides as to what the proper course of action is here. This isn’t even necessarily something that’s contained to the specific fanbases, as it’s become a national NHL discussion. Contextually, what it’s ultimately been distilled to is where you morally stand on The Code and the role it– may or may not still– plays in today’s game.

Despite the side of the divide you ultimately land on, there is no debate as to what caused the incident that has led to the broader media conversation, and the two cities to engage in social media– and 90s-era billboard– warfare.

But, there’s an even further interior debate that’s entrenched in this incident. It’s the egregiousness of the hits that Tkachuk targeted at Kassian that, though the NHL deemed them legal, it does not negate the fact that they were reckless.

And therein lies the issue, and the reason why retribution and adherence to The Code is front and centre heading into tonight’s rematch. Like I said, the NHL deemed them legal, something that Kassian– and many players, past and present– fundamentally disagree with. They believe it’s precisely the type of hits that the league as vowed to outlaw as a means of reducing head trauma. In fact, it’s the very underpinning reason to punish Kassian for his actions– Tkachuk was an unwilling combatant, and his brain had to be spared from unprotected blows to the skull.

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In today’s modern age of science and medical advancement– and the public awareness of the gruesome effects that trauma to the head can cause– the position to legislate out the causal events that lead to them is simply none-negotiable. But, it has to be acknowledged that in a sport that inherently encourages contact, coupled with its ever-increasing speed, it’s not something that can be simply done.

The NHL has taken efforts to enact appropriate conditions within their penal code to seriously protect their workforce from head injuries, with the language surrounding the suspension sentencing changing, and the strictness threshold lowering, over the last few years.

Allegedly.

There had been suspensions in the past handed out for what was vaguely deemed a “blindside hit,” but it was after Brendan Shanahan assumed the role of NHL Senior Vice President on 1 June, 2011 that the term “illegal hit to the head” was accepted as the official vernacular for doling out subsequent suspensions. It’s important to remember that the 2010-11 season saw Sidney Crosby suffer his infamous concussion at the hands– or shoulders– of David Steckel and Victor Hedman, leading to this crackdown on vicious head shots.

The 2011-12 season saw 11 “illegal check to the head” suspensions handed for a total of 36 regular season games (and 1 post-season game for Claude Giroux); the lockout-shortened 2013 season saw 7 of those suspensions handed out for a combined 16 regular season games (and six post-season games for Raffi Torres hitting Jarett Stoll– you hate to see former Oiler-on-Oiler violence).

The 2013-14 season was notable for being the first in which players were no longer allowed to take their helmets off prior-to or during a fight. That season saw 15 players suspended for “illegal checks to the head,” accounting for 56 combined games (3 of those were post season games at the expense of the Minnesota Wild’s Michael Rupp). There were also another 14 suspensions listed as “boarding,” for 39 combined games, and 3 listed as “charging” worth 10 games. The longest was 10 games handed out to the Buffalo Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta for his hit on Jack Johnson.*

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*other notable suspensions from this season included: 8 games for Zack Kassian for breaking Sam Gagner’s jaw with a high-stick; 15 days for Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella for trying to enter the Calgary Flames’ dressing room; 20 games for Zenon Konopka for violating the terms of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program; and 15 games for Shawn Thornton for “aggressing against” (sucker-punching) Brooks Orpik.

Stephane Quintal then took over from Brendan Shanahan on April 11, 2014 as Director of Player Safety.

The 2014-15 season saw an immediate dip in the number of suspensions as a result of an “illegal check to the head,” as only 9 players were suspended for a combined 27 games, while another 4 were suspended for boarding for a combined 7 games, and 2 for charging calls, resulting in 9 games lost (though 8 of those were served by Zac Rinaldo on Kris Letang). There were also three fines were dolled out to Alexei Emelin, Marco Scandella, and Jannik Hansen, all at the maximum amount permitted. 

The slide then continued as the 2015-16 season saw 7 “illegal check to the head” suspensions for 17 games (the largest of which was 5 games to Zac Rinaldo as a repeat-offender), and the 2016-17 season with 5 of those suspensions for 11 regular season games.

George Parros then took over as Director of Player Safety in September 2017. The ensuing 2017-18 season saw only 4 “illegal check to the head” suspensions handed out for 7 combined games; the Ottawa Senators’ Fredrik Claesson for 2 regualar season games, while Drew Doughty and Ryan Hartman each lost 1 post-season game, and Tom Wilson lost 3 past-season games.

The 2018-19 season had a bit of an uptick in punishment, as 12 “illegal check to the head” suspensions were handed out for a combined 35 regular season games (14 of which went to Wilson, who was initially handed a 20-game ban before it was appealed and reduced to 14 by a neutral arbitrator, and three each to Mark Borowiecki and David Backes who were also deemed “repeat offenders”).

This brings us to the 2019-20 season. As of today, there has been exactly one (1) suspension handed out by the Department of Player Safety for an “illegal check to the head,” to Los Angeles Kings’ defenseman Kurtis MacDermid for his hit on Ivan Provorov.

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The whole point of this can be read one of two ways: 1) the NHL’s disciplinary structure implemented under Shanahan has slowly, but surely, done its job and players have committed less brutal head shots or; 2) the Department of Player Safety has become more lenient. The optimist would like to think that what Shanahan implemented was somewhat groundbreaking, and has indeed worked as a deterrent. But logic seems to redress that, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation surrounding Kassian’s suspension, particularly when you consider that Tkachuk’s hits weren’t even penalized.

There’s something wrong with the language that’s been embedded into the Player Safety legislation. “Illegal hit to the head” implies that there are legal hits to the head that may go unpunished, that only the truly heinous ones are to be sentenced.

The thing is that, out of the four major sports leagues in North America, pro hockey is the only one that sanctions bare-knuckle fighting in its rules. The NFL, the most violent sport out of them all, immediately ejects players for even attempting to fight, as does the NBA. In fact, the sport that might draw closest to the NHL’s style of gang-style justice would weirdly be MLB with their dugout clears, though those generally just result in a swath of players yelling at one another in a cluster. 

So for the NHL, as long as fighting is allowed to exist, so shall tribal retaliation, and as long as actions of the “pest” are tolerated– and in some ways praised– then so too shall on-ice justice be relied upon to regulate that behaviour from becoming unpunished. Because, the thing is, The NHL and it’s Department of Player Safety has not, and will not, implement any rules, regulations, or punishments to force the playing style of the “pest” out of the game; like I said, they more than tolerate it, turning a blind eye towards it, thereby encouraging it. They allow a pest to skate around the ice unchecked, escalating the emotions in violent brinksmanship until they become unhinged, while paying no price for acting as the direct catalyst in the incident.

And so now George Parros– the judge, jury, and executioner of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety– will be in attendance at Rogers Place to monitor the violence. Whose presence is apparently meant to serve as a sobering deterrent to the mass of ego and adrenaline and emotion that will be on the ice, while the disciplinary voice of Colin Campbell smugly believed to be humming as a de-escalating tuning fork in the players’ and coaches’ ears after his warning to the two sides.

The problem here is that if the NHL truly wants to eliminate the types of hits that reduce head trauma and, in this case, the incidents that lead to a provoked attack that can be punishable as “retaliatory” then they have a responsibility begin to mitigate the types of players whose sole intention is to provoke first, and contribute meaningfully second. And that means pests like Matthew Tkachuk.

But they won’t.

Instead they will act as benevolent stewards of Law and Order by sending their Overseer as the face of it. But for now, the violence and the remnants of the somewhat archaic, substantive law of The Code may be the true deterrent from anything that may escalate beyond what the NHL’s rules claim to contain.

Arms are hallowed when there is no other hope but in them.