Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taking on the Kostopoulos Suspension Decision

The NHL decided to come down hard on Calgary Flames forward Tom Kostopoulos on Sunday afternoon, levying him a six-game suspension for his hit on Brad Stuart of the Detroit Red Wings, which left the veteran defenseman with a broken jaw.  This is quickly becoming a hot topic and I thought I would write my first post of the New Year on the Soapbox about this controversy.

Below, have a look at the video and get a look at the play in question.

Since the implementation of Rule 48 (Illegal Check to the Head), there has been plenty of focus surrounding this rule as a whole and possibly for good reason. There were a number of checks in the 2010 season, which were deemed questionable by good judgement, but also deemed legal, as there wasn't any elbows, sticks or charges into these checks, rather catching an opposing player unaware and striking a blow to his head. Fair enough, Rule 48 is in the books and it has been used off an on in the 2011 season to good measure.

As Mike Milbury contends (included in the clip below), and many agree to, including myself, the check does not fall under the guidelines of Rule 48, because the check was applied from the front, eliminating the first part of the rule.

Rule 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.

Okay, I think that part is definitely lost in the heated nature of the argument and should be re-evaluated.  Since the hit shouldn't fall under Rule 48, we really should get away from referring to it, because it doesn't apply.

The call on the ice during the game was Kostopoulos receiving a 2-minute minor for roughing and no other penalties were given out on the play.  A roughing call does have a certain level of discretion applied to it by the referees in the game, especially in the sense that the game is so fast and goes beyond the field of view for most referees.  For argument's sake, let's have a look at the letter of the law for a roughing call...

Rule 51.1 -- Roughing – Roughing is a punching motion with the hand or fist, with or without the glove on the hand, normally directed at the head or face of an opponent.

Roughing is a minor altercation that is not worthy of a major penalty to either participant. (An altercation is a situation involving two players with at least one to be penalized).

Although the play does not involve a punch, rather a shoulder in a clean check fashion, it likely shouldn't have been deemed a roughing call, more than an interference call, at best.

Since the call on the ice was indeed a roughing call, the NHL league offices do have the ability to levy supplemental discipline under Rule 51.4.

Rule 51.4 -- Fines and Suspensions - There are no specified fines or suspensions for roughing, however, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).

Despite the use of the roughing rule was possibly applied improperly by the letter of the law, you could argue that applying supplementary discipline should not apply to this case. Which I think is a fair argument to use.

But wait! There's more. Let's actually refer to Rule 28 for argument's sake.

Rule 28.1 -- Supplementary Discipline - In addition to the automatic fines and suspensions imposed under these rules, the Commissioner may, at his discretion, investigate any incident that occurs in connection with any Pre-season, Exhibition, League or Playoff game and may assess
additional fines and/or suspensions for any offense committed during the course of a game or any aftermath thereof by a player, goalkeeper, Trainer, Manager, Coach or non-playing Club personnel
or Club executive, whether or not such offense has been penalized by the Referee.

If an investigation is requested by a Club or by the League on its own initiative, it must be initiated within twenty-four (24) hours following the completion of the game in which the incident occurred.

Boy, oh boy... I think we have ourselves a winner.  At the league office's discretion, any incident on the ice can be reviewed and subject to supplementary discipline, even if the play wasn't penalized by the referee.  I would also take that as penalized correctly by the referee, for this instance in particular.

Let us also go back in time, to the not-so-distant past, to when the hits to the head to unsuspecting players was a hot button topic.  The league, executives and most of its players were in general agreement that these hits should be removed from the game, period.  With that being said, most people would also agree that Rule 48 isn't perfect, despite it being very clear in its wording.

So, finally, let's review what Colin Campbell had to say about his decision in his statement on Sunday afternoon.

"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."

The league outlined the fact that the hit in question was not a blindside or lateral hit, thus eliminating Rule 48 from the argument, but a serious injury was caused during the play where an unsuspecting player took a blow to the head, without possession of the puck, did take place and punishment was deemed appropriate.

To sum it all up, from my perspective, this isn't a decision with the letter of the law, rather a decision that exercises good judgement. If Brad Stuart was not seriously injured on the play, this play would have had a short debate about Rule 48, have it quashed and Kostopoulos would be able to dress in the Flames next game.

The injury, which was a result of a blow to the head, because you can't break someone's jaw by hitting them in the chest, was a key reasoning factor, not to mention the appearance of the hit did look somewhat vicious.

I'm a big supporter of clean checks to the head, I don't think there is any way to get around them in a lot of instances, but I can at least see the reasoning behind the unsuspecting player aspect of the whole thing.  This will be the kind of hit and supplementary discipline decision, which will likely incur a revision to the rule for the sake of better judgement.