There are arguments that the NHL is trying to soften up the game, eliminate fighting, physicality, and take away the essence of hockey. While that is a debate people can have, it’s a debate that must wait for another time.
Player safety is one area where there should be absolutely no argument. When something happens on the ice that is so blatantly unsafe that permanent injury becomes a thing that could happen, your argument becomes invalid. Hockey is an amazing game, however, it’s no reason for someone to lose their health or life over.
The league suspended New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner two games for an “illegal check to the head” he delivered to Carolina Hurricanes center Nathan Gerbe. The hit in question was deemed by league officials to have targeted Gerbe’s head. Grabner, under the NHLPA’s current agreement, will forfeit over $30,000 in salary.
This all sounds pretty routine at this point. We’ve heard this story before with the Todd Bertuzzi incident and the infamous Marty McSorley stick check to the head of Donald Brashear. Officials call a player for this penalty or that, sometimes even a match penalty, and after the game the play is reviewed by the Office Of Player Safety and fines are handed out.
That’s what sets this suspension apart from the previous incidents. In the game, Grabner was not called for any penalty; Gerbe immediately returned to his feet and played regular shifts the remainder of the game. The only change was that Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller allowed Gerbe to take the day off and miss the morning skate. This was an entirely routine play that didn’t even warrant a replay.
Yet Grabner is suspended.
This is undoubtedly a good look for the NHL. Islanders fans may be screaming “but there way no penalty on the play”, and Hurricanes fans are screaming the same thing but in a different tone of voice. Both sides need to close their word holes in a hurry.
There was no penalty on the play. That’s it. Grabner didn’t raise his free hand, he didn’t check from behind, he didn’t hit after the whistle, he didn’t leave his skates — an argument could be made to justify the no-call. That being said, hockey rules are very often up for interpretation. What’s an interference minor to one, may not be to another. On top of this, the officials are allowed a great deal of latitude in their calls. No official on the ice felt like Grabner’s hit warranted a penalty.
The word “illegal” in the suspension is important. Grabner, or any other skater, is not allowed to target another player in the head. They just can’t. While an on-ice official didn’t feel there was an infraction, the Department Of Player Safety did, and for them to override the officials is the move to make.
This is good for the NHL because they are sending a message that they are not going to micromanage every single possible occurrence of anything that can ever happen on the ice, however, they are going to get the players to use some judgement. They’re going to teach this lesson whether players like it or not.
For the NHL to send a stern message that penalty or no penalty, players will engage in safe play at all times is landmark in its importance.
Hurricanes fans who celebrate Grabner’s suspension are being childish and counter-productive; and for Islanders fans to protest it is ill-advised. In the end, thankfully Gerbe is okay, Grabner will pay a $30,000 lesson, and the league now has a precedent set.