Friday, February 4, 2011

Intent to Injure

In a wild game last night against the Dallas Stars Daniel Paille was penalized under NHL rule 48 (Illegal Check to the Head). He was also given a match penalty at the discretion of the referee. This morning the NHL announced a 4 game suspension of Paille and a fine of $23,118.28.

The Stars' Raymond Sawada is reported to have suffered a broken nose and a separated shoulder.

Here is the main part of rule 48:

48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.

I agree completely that this was an illegal hit to the head under this new rule and agree with the four game suspension. But something is not completely right here. Section 5 of rule 48 reads:

48.5 Match Penalty - The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head.

This part I am having trouble with. I have heard the pundits weigh in on this one and too many, in my opinion, are comparing this hit to the Matt Cooke hit on Mark Savard last year. When it comes to this last part--"intent to injure" I couldn't disagree more. These hits are completely different.

Watching the play develop last night I saw a resurgent Dallas team get a couple of good bounces of the puck to get behind most of the Bruins defense. When Paille made that hit he was making a good defensive play as Sawada was driving to the net in control of the puck. Sawada had is head down and Paille used poor judgment when he unloaded on him from the side. But how did the referee determine that he "deliberately injured his opponent?" Did he call in a mind reader? Shame on him for assuming this was anything more than poor judgment on a back check.

If you compare this hit to the Cooke incident there are several major differences. The first is that the hit came behind the play. Savard did not have possession of the puck. Second, the hit was a blindside from behind. Third, Cooke was seen to have intentionally raised his elbow for the blow to the head as he skated by. Even in this case we can't know what was going through Cooke's mind. He may have simply been careless--misjudging his speed and the effect of the impact of his elbow on Savard's head. How will we ever know? Intent to injure or not, it seems to me that the Cooke hit was much more reckless. Unlike the Paille hit this was not a part of the play. When it comes to being behind the play, as far as I'm concerned Cooke might just as well have mugged Savard with a tire iron in the parking lot after after the game.

Rule 48 didn't exist at the time of the hit on Savard and famously Cooke didn't even receive a penalty. I wonder what the NHL would do if that same hit happened today? Give him a six game suspension? I think there needs to be a distinction drawn between these sorts of hits when it comes to the sentence handed down. It also should not be based on "intent" which is impossible to know. Intent was a mistake. I think recklessness is a better way to discriminate one from the other and the situation should matter. It is far more reckless to hit someone from behind who is going to tag a puck for icing, or behind the play without the puck, than when making a split second decision on a defensive play in front of the net.

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