Does this look like the face of a man who does anything on purpose?
Ever since the hiring of John Tortorella, it’s been assumed that, barring a major mishap, Zack Kassian would be opening the season skating alongside the Sedins in place of Alex Burrows. Yeah, about that. Saturday night in Edmonton, there was a major mishap.
On Sunday morning, the Oilers announced that Sam Gagner, a pretty important part of their forwards corps as the only guy without a hyphen in his name capable of playing centre in their top six, would miss a significant amount of time due to injury. The injury: a broken jaw, suffered when Kassian caught him with a high-stick. See for yourself:
This is terrible, of course, and Gagner’s loss is a devastating blow to a fanbase that think maybe, just maybe, the Oilers might be competitive this year, but my first thought is that this isn’t a suspendable incident. I understand that a dude got his jaw broken, but this looks, to my eyes, like an unfortunate accident — not unlike the time Matt Cooke inadvertently sliced Erik Karlsson’s achilles tendon on an equally bungled hit.
But it would appear the NHL sees it differently: Kassian has a hearing with the Department of Player Safety scheduled for Monday. Worse, he was offered the option of doing the hearing in-person, an indication that, in the words of Bane, his punishment must be more severe. Kassian may very well be about to have his back broken before being thrown into a pit.
First of all, a word on intent: I don’t see any here. I don’t think you always have to have intent to injure in order to get suspended, of course, but in the case of these high-sticking infractions that cross the line into supplemental discipline, I do think you have to have intent to do something.
The case that comes to mind, for me, was Pierre Marc-Bouchard getting suspended two games back in October of 2011 for high-sticking Matt Calvert in the mouth, knocking out three teeth in the process. It was an accident. Bouchard’s intent appeared to be to slash Calvert somewhere in the torso, but Calvert wound up lifting the stick as it came around, and up it went into his mouth.
“It was just a bad accident,” Bouchard said at the time. It was just a battle there on the faceoff. He comes after me before the puck drops, and we go at it. He lifts my stick and it hits him in the mouth. I’m not that kind of player. I was not aiming for his mouth.”
Right. But if you swing your stick at a guy and it accidentally gets him in the mouth, one might ask why you were swinging your stick at that guy. That’s a great way to accidentally get a guy in the mouth. I think you have to reap the consequences there.
The same principle applied when Duncan Keith chopped Jeff Carter in the face last postseason. Said Brendan Shanahan, in explaining Keith’s one-game suspension: ”Although Keith asserts that he did not intend to hit Carter in the face or hit him with such force, he does admit to intentionally swinging his stick at Carter as Carter is skating away from him.”
The difference that I see in the Kassian incident is that this isn’t, to my eyes, an instance of Kassian attempting to hit Gagner with his stick anywhere. He misses badly on the check, and as he swings around and hits the boards, he tries to regain his balance and winds up swinging the stick around with some admittedly insane force. To my eyes, there’s no intent there. There isn’t even intent to slash in the first place. It’s just a thing that happens.
That’s Kassian’s explanation as well. ”I was going to try to hit him and he stopped quick,” he told The Province. “I went with the shoulder and lost control and swung my stick and hit him in the face. The guy has a broken jaw. You never want to see that happen. But if you look at the replay, it’s hard to purposely tomahawk and swing your stick and hit somebody in the face.”
Understandably, Oilers fans aren’t buying it. They see it much, much differently. Maclean’s columnist Colby Cosh sees it as a reckless, stupid, deliberate act, much like disagreeing with him.
If you think that was just a typical hockey play, you either need to watch more hockey or you made your mind up about the play in advance.
— Colby Cosh (@colbycosh) September 23, 2013
Meanwhile, the normally sensible Tyler Dellow, one of the best hockey bloggers in Edmonton or anywhere, was willing to go so far as to call it borderline criminal, citing the legal precedent set by Marty McSorley’s two-hander to Donald Brashear.
I actually think that it’s an open question whether or not the Kassian slash was criminal. Read paras. 72-76: http://t.co/KwWJPHWvL5
— mc79hockey (@mc79hockey) September 23, 2013
This is unfortunate for two reasons: both because, again, Dellow is normally more reasonable, and because the moment I find myself arguing against the criminality of a nasty hit, as a Canucks fan, it sends me a decade back in time, and I’d rather not be in a place to be compared to the Bertuzzi defenders.
Granted, claiming this is a case for the authorities is akin to the hysteria we saw out of Ottawa last year, with Eugene Melnyk hiring forensic analysts, or Montreal fans back a few years back calling 911 after Zdeno Chara hit Max Pacioretty into the divider. I honestly don’t see how you can go to aggravated assault on this incident unless you’ve been made a little crazy by what it means for you as an Oilers fan. (I hate saying that, though, because calling out fan bias to dismiss opinions with which you disagree is really just a race to the bottom. It’s also a great way to insulate yourself from the rigours of independent thought and to avoid facing your own biases. Dellow indicated he might write a post on the criminal angle, and if he does, I look forward to reading it with an open mind.)
But, all this said, I do see two fairer interpretations of this hit that put it in big-time suspension territory (and no, neither of them are “the league is out to get the Canucks”, so take the tintoil off your head and put it back on the ham where it belongs).
The league might see this incident as closer to Bouchard and Keith. They could argue that, like those two buffoons, Kassian’s act of dumbassery — which broke a dude’s jaw, remember — is the result of an attempt to swing for the midsection gone wrong due to his loss of balance. I don’t see it that way, but I can see how others might. If you think Kassian swung his stick with intent, even if the intent wasn’t to catch Gagner in the face, then by all means, ban him to kingdom come. My opinion on these incidents is the same: if you swing your stick at a guy, you’d better be prepared for the off-chance that you do the sort of damage that would stun a zombie, as well as the consequences therein.
The league might also decide that, accidental or not, this was a hit to the head and is suspendable for that reason alone. Sure, it was a wild stick, not a wild elbow, but rather than see it in the same vein as Cooke on Karlsson, the league might see it in the same vein as the other botched hits that connect with the head.
It’s not like those, of course, and I think this interpretation of the hit isn’t really a fair one, but it’s also not fair that Gagner has a broken jaw, and once you land in headshot territory, regardless of how you got there, you’re often at the mercy of the DOPS cops.
A suspension is coming. That’s a rough break for Kassian, but probably not as rough as Gagner’s, so it’s tough to feel too sorry for him.Tags: suspensions, Zack Kassian