Kris Letang was hit from behind by Ryan Callahan in game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Yet there is a large and growing number of people who think the headline should read “Letang turns his back and forces Callahan into impossible situation.”

Callahan himself has defended the hit in part because Letang “turned his back at the last moment. I’m already committed at that point.”

Here are the four most common arguments against a Callahan suspension, and my response to them.

1)Letang has a role too.

I’ve yet to see anyone expand on that vague sentence. They must feel it speaks for itself. So what is Letang’s role then? To properly answer this, you have to stop looking at his role ONLY as it pertains to keeping himself safe in the context of the hit. If that was the case, he should have just skated to the bench, grabbed a beer, and avoided the hit altogether.

But as many from both sides have pointed out, this dump and chase thing happens all the time. You might even be so bold as to call this a routine hockey play. The term “hockey play” is very important. Letang is a hockey player, and a rather handsomely paid one at that. His job is to play hockey. His official role here is to play the puck, and that’s what he did. I’ll get into the part about keeping himself safe in the very next point.

2)Letang turned his back. There’s no way Callahan could react on time!

With the new understanding of Letang’s role, which is strictly making a hockey play, it should have become very obvious to Callahan that Letang would make a shift in body position. First of all, defensemen are taught to make evasive manoeuvres to keep a forechecker from guessing which way they’re intending to move the puck. The tell tale sign is the angle at which a player approaches the puck. To hide intention (and simply to win the race to the puck) a player in Letang’s position tends to take a general straight line with the odd side to side wiggle. So yes, at the last possible second when he had to finally take the required angle to properly move the puck, Letang did turn a bit. For an experienced player like Callahan, this should have been easily predictable because it’s part of the hockey play aspect. To take it even further, this body adjustment was actually even more predictable specifically because it was Kris Letang. He’s a right handed shot. That should have been a giveaway to Callahan.
On approach, Letang had three general options: to play or skate the puck toward the back of his net; to play or skate the puck up the boards; or to eat the puck and initiate a battle. Because of the puck location at the moment of impact (which was easily predictable), in all three choices Letang as a right shot would have ended up in the same position. His right shoulder would have to first turn towards the boards, further exposing his back. As a right shot to make a play on that puck from his angle of approach, there is literally nothing he could do about that. He didn’t duck. He didn’t try to avoid anything or turn his back. All he could do is make a play and be sure to keep himself balanced, bend his knees to brace for impact, and keep his back, neck, and head upright so his chest would hit the boards first. Watch and really study Letang’s body position as he was hit. As this screen shot conclusively proves, that’s exactly what he did.

Letang.PNG

Photo credit: Josh Boulton

C)This type of play happens all the time and doesn’t get called.

True. Legal hits from behind are common place. You can’t just say “you never hit the numbers” and expect that to be reason enough. Callahan has every right to hit Letang here and that needs to be said. Let’s remember, the penalty was not for checking from behind. It was for boarding. This means Callahan did something extra to cause either unnecessary danger or unnecessary force to the hit.
As the pictures again prove, Letang was safely upright all the way up to the exact moment of impact(above). This hit would have been safe and comparable to the 30 other similar hits a game had it carried on that way. It was only the actions of Callahan that made it different. He took his forearm/elbow and forced Letang’s head and neck forward and downward into the boards. There is nothing Letang could have done to protect himself, and that situation was ONLY caused by Callahan. Letang had no role to play in the danger of the hit.

Letang 2.PNG

D)Callahan was already punished. he got a 5 minute major.

Irrelevant. Player Safety doesn’t need to care about that. What it should care about is sending meaningful messages about dangerous plays they want eliminated from the game. If driving a player’s head forcefully into the boards isn’t considered dangerous, I don’t want my kids to suit up anymore.

I will also spare you one more excuse. I do write for a Penguins based publication. Before you accuse me of being biased, I’ve recently written articles on why Chris Kunitz should be disciplined for his knee, defending Johnson for trying to avoid the hit in the first place, and how Letang should have been suspended for his stick to the face of Viktor Stalberg, among other things.

As a hockey fan and a blogger on the safety of the game, I need to do what I can to make sure there is no repeat of Callahan’s disgraceful disregard for the well being of his peers.

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