Saturday, September 28, 2013

Phil Kessel, Lumberjack

If you're a hockey fan, I'm sure you've seen the video.  In a preseason game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres, Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel raises his stick above his head and chops down forcefully onto the leg of Sabres enforcer John Scott.  This comes in response to Scott lining up opposite Kessel for the face-off and making an obvious threat, then dropping his gloves with the puck and attempting to jump Kessel.  Now, as we all know, it is a breach of hockey etiquette for an enforcer (which Scott obviously is) to fight a skill player (which you would have to consider Kessel).  All of this came in response to a previous fight between Cory Tropp and Jamie DeVane, in which Tropp ended up banging his head on the ice (after his helmet fell off).  Tropp, a much smaller player than DeVane, ended up with a concussion and a broken jaw.  Apparently, the Sabres took exception to the big guy fighting a little guy (another no-no in hockey’s unwritten rule book).  I wouldn’t blame them for seeking retribution in that situation if it wasn’t for one simple fact; Tropp initiated the fight with DeVane.  All DeVane did was accept the challenge.  If anybody’s to blame for what happened to Tropp, it’s Tropp himself.  Quite simply, he bit off more than he could chew and he paid the price for it.
In any case, the Sabres obviously felt the need for payback, so Head Coach Ron Rolston sent out his biggest tough guy to “send a message”.  Well, we all know what that means.  Scott was sent out there to beat the snot out of somebody.  Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle, apparently trying to defuse the situation, responded by sending out Kessel’s line.  He figured that Scott would respect the code and not attack a skill player.  As it turns out, he was wrong.  Still, I can’t fault him for what happened next.  Scott went ahead and dropped his gloves and went after Kessel, who clearly didn’t want any part of any fight.  He backed away, and chopped at Scott’s legs (shinpads, pants, whatever…essentially noplace that would do any damage) to try and keep him at bay.  At this point, one of Kessel’s teammates, Carter Ashton, jumped in and tangled with Scott, which touched off a line brawl that even saw the goalies going at it.  Kessel followed through with another whack (which may or may not have landed) at Scott’s legs before dropping his gloves to fight Travis Turnbull, a Sabres rookie who is much closer to Kessel’s size.  Later in the melee, Kessel has gathered up his gloves and stick and goes back at Scott, who is still tied up with David Clarkson, and pushes at him with the heel of his stick.  A lot of people mistakenly claim that he speared him, but upon reviewing the video you can clearly see that he doesn’t spear him with the toe of the blade, he pushes him with the heel of the blade.  It may seem like a minor distinction, but as somebody who has been hit by a stick in both of these fashions I can tell you unequivocally that being speared hurts much worse than the heel push, which is fairly inconsequential.
Upon reviewing the referees’ report and video of the incident it was up to the NHL’s enforcement czar, Brendan Shanahan, to make some sort of sense of this mess and administer the proper punishment to all involved.  What he ended up doing was fining Ron Rolston for his choice of players in sending Scott out (which seems odd because Carlyle had the last change).  I don’t really have a problem with that.  It was clear by what happened next that he had sent Scott out to seek revenge, or at the very least that he was responsible for Scott’s actions after sending him out under those circumstances.  Scott got no suspension for what amounted to jumping an unwilling player, which should have carried an instigator or aggressor penalty and a game misconduct, but really nothing else.  I’m okay with that.  While his violation of “The Code” was egregious, the league can’t discipline players for violating unwritten rules.  There may be some further payback coming at a later date (assuming the Leafs can find a bigger Neanderthal to administer said payback), but nothing in the NHL rulebook warranted any type of suspension for his actions.
Phil Kessel got a 3-game suspension (the balance of the preseason schedule) for his role in the affair.  This basically amounts to nothing.  Since players aren’t paid during the preseason, he’s not losing any salary.  Basically, he’s getting 3 games off that he wasn’t being paid for anyway.  Some people think that this is a travesty because of the way he swung his stick.  Let’s be realistic here.  He didn’t swing at the guy’s head.  He swung at his legs, probably hitting him in the shinpads or on the heavily padded pants.  He did no damage.  He didn’t hurt Scott.  Hell, Scott hardly even flinched.  In reality, what he did amounted to a couple of whacks (2-minute minor for slashing each) and one little shove with the heel of his stick, which may have warranted another minor.  This wasn’t a “stick-swinging incident” as the news outlets trumpeted.  This was a stick-swinging incident:
Here’s where it gets tricky, however.  David Clarkson can be seen leaving the bench to come to Kessel’s defense, which is a clear violation of NHL rules and carries an automatic 10-game suspension (to be served during the regular season, not preseason).  While I understand the reasoning behind that rule (to keep a line brawl from turning into a full bench-clearing brawl), I think it’s a little harsh given what happened in this case.  The Sabres got zero games for their role in a brawl that they instigated, while the Leafs got a total of 13 games (including the 3 preseason games that Kessel got for defending himself).  It seems totally out of line that the Sabres got off with less punishment when they were the clear aggressors.

The only issue I have with all of this is the fact that Kessel’s suspension only includes preseason games.  If what he did warranted a suspension (which it didn’t), that suspension should be served in the regular season like all the other suspensions that we’ve seen this preseason.  Why does he get to serve 3 meaningless games while everybody else has to miss time in the regular season?  It doesn’t make sense.  But then…that’s the NHL.

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