VANCOUVER — “The law,” as Mr. Bumble so aptly put it in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, “is a ass — a idiot.”
In this case, we are not talking about 17th century English law, the part that supposed that a man’s wife acted under his direction at all times. (“If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor,” Bumble lamented.)
We are, today, addressing the law of the National Hockey League, under which “direction” is a fluid concept, written in chalk, designed to be heavily underlined and accompanied by a stern finger-wag, or erased, according to the wind direction.
Case in point: Vancouver Canucks defenceman Alex Edler, pursuing a puck behind the Phoenix Coyotes’ net Thursday, finds goalie Mike Smith is in the process of playing it. Edler barges into him from behind, knocking the goalie flat, touching off a minor brouhaha as the Coyotes, quite reasonably, rush to their ’keeper’s defence.
Edler gets five minutes for charging, a hearing late Friday and eventually a two-game suspension from Brendan Shanahan’s department of player safety, a title which, if you were visiting from another planet, you might assume was all about the safety of players. You would be wrong.
And here is where the law is substantially as Mr. Bumble described it.
Two springtimes ago (not to belabour an old sore point), then-Canucks’ winger Raffi Torres worked up a full head of steam and made an honest effort at beheading Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, blindsiding the vulnerable Blackhawks’ defenceman with a shoulder-to-head hit behind the Chicago net in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series.
Torres, despite a history of violent hits and just off a four-game sentence for knocking Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle silly, got two minutes for interference, because Seabrook didn’t have the puck. Otherwise, the league ruled — hauling out an obscure bit of fine print in Rule 48, the head-blow rule, and declining to suspend Torres — the hit was perfectly legal because it was delivered within the trapezoid behind the net, the previously unheard-of “hitting zone” in which all hits are deemed to be “north-south” and concepts such as blindside, vulnerable, and defenceless are all inapplicable.
In fairness, this was under the Colin Campbell administration, which had no “player safety” wording in its mandate. Shanahan, in his early efforts at providing video explanations for his decisions to suspend, or not suspend, was at minimum more transparent and, we hoped, would be more consistent.
But it turns out his job is hopeless.
His department is assailed from all sides by conflicting interests, unwritten codes, invisible forces, influential objectors, teams less important than other teams ... he’s basically got no chance.
The same night Edler got five for charging Smith, New York Rangers’ Rick Nash felled Florida’s Tomas Kopecky with a blindside, leaping elbow to the head just after Kopecky had released a shot, in the most obvious spot on the ice, directly in front of the net, and two referees gave it a pass.
Not even a minor. No hearing, no suspension.
Is that because Nash is a model citizen, a Ranger, a skill player? Who knows?
But then, why Edler? The big, placid Swede plays his position in a dreamlike state, with no evident pulse-rate, makes as many wonderful plays as awful ones but is no worse than Vancouver’s third-best defenceman, and has shown no previous proclivity for violence.
Leave it for another day to debate the absurdity of Seabrook being fair game in the hitting zone, but not Smith, wearing more padding than the Michelin Man, while out of his crease playing the puck like a real hockey player.
Leave it to another day to ask why there should even have been a major to Edler, when Milan Lucic’s steamrollering of Buffalo’s wandering goalie Ryan Miller in November of 2011, causing a concussion, drew only a two-minute charging penalty, and no subsequent discipline.
Did Edler make contact with Smith’s head? It doesn’t seem so. Nash on Kopecky’s melon? Sure did.
Did Edler’s hit cause Smith — who apparently is being treated for “whiplash” — to leave the game at the end of the second period? Maybe, maybe not. He might have been injured earlier when Daniel Sedin’s nose punched him in the catching glove.
But the location of the Edler-Smith collision was nearly identical to a hit by Chicago’s Andrew Shaw (also on Smith) that netted him a three-game suspension in the playoffs last spring. In that case, though, Shaw delivered a glancing blow to Smith’s head as he went by.
In today’s game, Smith would also have gotten two minutes for embellishing the Shaw collision. Italian soccer players, reached for comment, were appalled at the poor quality of his acting. Nonetheless, it was a gratuitous head shot, and Shanahan was right to throw the book at Shaw.
But not Nash?
But not Torres (that time)?
But not Lucic?
The NHL’s interpretation of its rulebook — both through its referees, who seem to prefer to go all minimalist and leave the cleanup to Shanahan, and through the player safety department itself — is so riddled with contradictions, there is no chance of delivering consistent rulings.
Precedents have been all over the map.
Even if there were in place a common-sense blanket rule on, say, head shots — major penalty at minimum regardless of intent, ejection for intent to injure, with supplemental discipline optional — there are a dozen other rules so absurd, or unevenly enforced, the NHL is practically volunteering to be mocked.
The league wants to get head blows out of the game, but allows fighting because, supposedly, fighters willingly accept the risk.
So a player can be tossed for an elbow to the head of an opponent, but not for punching him in the face.
A player, one hand on the stick, waves it in the general direction of the puck-carrier’s hands ... or a goaltender, his hands encased in armour unsuitable for the task, tries to clear the puck and it goes over the glass ... and it’s the same two minutes a guy gets (or often doesn’t get) for obliterating an opponent with a cross-check to the back of the neck in front of the net?
As concerns the Edler-Smith collision, it’s right there in black and white.
“A goalkeeper is not ‘fair game’ just because he is outside the goal crease area,” says NHL Rule 69.4.
“However, incidental contact, at the discretion of the Referee, will be permitted when the goalkeeper is in the act of playing the puck outside his goal crease provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”
Well, no one’s arguing that Edler tried to avoid hitting Smith, even though it was in the Immunity Zone.
It’s just that, you know, the rulebook is a ass.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun