The NHL's application of supplementary discipline has long been criticized as maddeningly inconsistent and opaque. Today, with the suspension of the Calgary Flames' Tom Kostopoulos for 6 games, Colin Campbell has taken this exercise in "creative" thinking to an entirely new level.
Friday night, Kostopoulos caught Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart with a brutal hit to the head, resulting in a broken jaw that will keep Stuart on the shelf for weeks. Many immediately jumped to the conclusion that with the league's new rule regarding head shots, that this would prove a textbook example for the league to send a message to players that such things won't be tolerated.
But does this hit really warrant supplementary discipline? According to the league's own video guidelines, maybe not...
First, a bit of background. Here's the video of the hit in question, which came as Stuart was battling to get a puck out of harm's way around the Detroit net. Kostopoulos comes right through and nails him in the head:
The relevant rule here is the revised Rule 48, which came in late last season and revised for this year:
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head- A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted.
The meat of Colin Campbell's statement on the suspension reads as follows (emphasis mine):
"A number of factors were considered in reaching this decision," said NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell. "Kostopoulos delivered a blow to the head of an unsuspecting and vulnerable player. As well, he targeted the head of his opponent and, while the hit was not from the blindside, the head was the principle point of contact. The fact that Brad Stuart was not in possession of the puck when the blow was delivered and the serious nature of the player's injury were also considered in my decision."
If this wasn't a lateral or blindside hit, then Rule 48 doesn't even apply here, right? The danger came because Stuart was looking down and to the side as he tried to play the puck. His body is almost fully square as Kostopoulos catches him.
The league even published a video before the season outlining what was a legal, and illegal, hit under the new rule. Jump to the 2:53 mark, and you'll see a hit which looks very, very similar to this Kostopoulos-Stuart situation:
Yup, that's specifically declared LEGAL under the NHL's guidelines.
It Doesn't Have To Be This Way
Now, it is a perfectly legitimate question as to whether all head hits should be made illegal - personally, I think the NHLPA should take a strong stance on that point, as Mike Chen wrote about the other day at From The Rink:
Player safety should be at the foremost of both the league's concern and the PA's concern. However, the true power to change hits to the head comes from the PA. It's all about education and repetition; educate the players on potential lifelong effects of concussions and repeat the mantra "Respect your opponent" until its as natural as a Canadian saying, "Eh?"
When guys like Keith Primeau, Mike Richter, and Jeff Beukeboom speak out about severity of post-concussion syndrome and how some of it doesn't go away after years, you'd think the players would sit up and listen. These are well-respected players who've played with the current generation of players and the current era of medicine. They know what they're talking about. And yet, we don't hear a word from the PA about having someone like Primeau be hired out to talk with each team about concussions and dangers of hits to the head.
The only discernible reason a suspension is being handed down today is because Brad Stuart suffered an injury, and Mike Babcock made a big stink about it in the press.
And that's a joke, plain and simple. How the players are supposed to get a message, when it doesn't even abide by the guidelines the league rolled out over the summer?