Sidney Crosby suffered another concussion in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semi Final against the Washington Capitals. It’s awful. It’s sickening. Hockey has become secondary and all I want to know is that he’s going to be able to live his life the way he wants to.
There is the issue of what to do about it though. It was a cross check. To the head. That’s a big deal. On the surface it’s exactly what the league wants out of the game, or SHOULD want out of the game. It seems like a no brainer here.
But if you’re on the Niskanen punishment train, you really need to consider what your stance is based on. There’s varying degrees of accusations to choose from.
Before I move on to the bigger picture ones, let’s start with the basic question: As an isolated incident, according the NHL rule book, is this cross check worthy of a suspension?
The call on the ice was cross checking, making it fall under Rule 59. It was called a major penalty, so by rule 59.5 the game misconduct was automatic, and not an additional penalty imposed by the referee.
That’s not to say the officials didn’t intentionally upgrade the original two minute call to a five minute major knowing a game misconduct would be attached, but it also means they didn’t have the option of calling a five minute major and still allowing Niskanen to finish the game.
When looking at it from a Department of Player Safety angle, you need to look for two main things: targeting and avoidability.
Did Niskanen have the time to focus on Crosby’s head? It’s important to note Crosby did change positions drastically in the moments prior to the hit. He was on his way down and falling into Niskanen. Niskanen was looking for contact and engaged it. But through no fault of his own, he was unable to reasonably avoid uncontrolled contact. More on that in a minute.
Did he target the head? Saying this doesn’t necessarily mean he was out to get Crosby’s head. All it means is did Niskanen do anything excessive to make contact with the head as likely as possible? He started with his hands way down, even after he put himself on a path for collision. He only raised his hands after Crosby was obviously no longer in control of his own movements.
You could look at that to mean if Crosby was out of control, it should be up to Niskanen to minimize the impact. Raising your hands and stick isn’t the smart choice if you’re looking to reduce the chances of head contact.
You could also say Niskanen didn’t raise his hands beyond a reasonable height anyone would choose if they were simply trying to protect themselves from someone coming directly at them with no humanly way to control how they hit them.
Looking at this as an isolated incident alone, I don’t think Niskanen had the time to target Crosby’s head. I don’t think he could have reasonably avoided contact with Crosby.
I do think he could have chosen to keep his stick down, but don’t see enough to conclusively say he raised it high enough to knowingly increase the possibility of head contact to an extreme, and therefore suspendable, degree.
That’s what Player Safety is limited to looking at. After all, the precedent was set in Round 1. In my article on the Matt Calvert one game suspension I point out the suspension was for message sending, not head targeting. They’ve tied their own hands and can’t possibly suspend anyone for head contact for the remainder of the playoffs. Because they let Calvert off the hook relatively speaking, this was a time bomb waiting to go off. While I could understand if they did suspend Niskanen, it would have been hard for them to justify it based on their own suspension history.
Could the NHL have also suspended Alexander Ovechkin for his role in the incident? My only real defence of Niskanen lies in the unpredictability of Crosby’s body position. If the majority of the danger from the cross check was created out of Crosby being sent off balance, how did he get that way?
Ovechkin catches Crosby’s skate with his own foot, and also takes a decent swing to the back of Crosby’s helmet with his stick. Any contact with the foot is risky at high speed. The whole point of it is to knock the player so off balance that they can’t play the puck. Combined with the stick to the head, it becomes reckless. This isn’t a hockey battle. Ovechkin didn’t have position. He was beaten. There’s full intent to illegally play the opponent with zero chance of winning the puck or regaining position.
Ovechkin’s actions put Crosby in foreseeable danger, even if the actual extent of the danger itself wasn’t foreseeable. I can see how the officials on the ice missed it, but Player Safety has the benefit of replay.
Let’s leave the legalese now and put this cross check into actual context. Niskanen and Crosby have a history, and Niskanen has a history of cross checking Crosby. He caught Crosby with a blatant one just last game, and it wasn’t exactly low.
In the game 3 issue, there’s no doubt he was going to get at least some piece of Crosby and I don’t think he cared what particular piece it was. If you go out of your way to hit someone enough times, eventually you’re going to do some damage.
Ovechkin, and the Capitals in general, have their own history with Crosby. He’s their kryptonite. Or at least, that’s what the media wants you to believe. According to the media, if it weren’t for Crosby alone Ovechkin would have 2-3 Cups by now.
Forget the Penguins have been deeper as a team over the years. Forget that the Penguins roll four lines consistently and knocked out the Caps last time despite Malkin and Crosby only getting two points between them.
No, it’s Crosby vs. Ovechkin and that’s it. This idea from the media, real or imagined, has produced real hatred toward Crosby which is evidenced by the fans who are actually celebrating this latest “hopefully career ending” injury.
Why wouldn’t some of the players feel that way as well? Keep in mind, the last time Crosby had a major concussion it just happened to be at the hands of a Capitals player. He’s both the best player and the best leader in the game right now. Even if you think there’s other candidates overall, at this very moment they aren’t technically “in the game”. They aren’t blocking shots and then diving to assist on a back breaking Game 2 goal.
If you were going to take one player out, it would be Crosby. If you were going to do it, being down 2-0 on the road is probably the time.
I realize this is conjecture and sounds conspiratorial, but it happens. Remember the Bobby Clarke slash in 1972. Remember Ulf Samuelsson on Cam Neely in 1991. Adam Graves on Mario in 1992. Claude Lemieux on Kris Draper in 1996. Tie Domi on Scott Niedermayer in 2001. James Neal on Claude Giroux in 2012. That’s just a very small handful. Teams have been taking out stars since the beginning of winning and losing.
This is where the concept of star protection comes up. If the regular suspension rules don’t apply, I’m not against treating this as a special case because it was Sidney Crosby specifically. Like it or not, he is THE star of the league. He’s also arguably the one who needs the most protection because of his concussion history. Anyone who thinks Crosby is already protected or favoured by the league is as delusional as people think I am for defending Niskanen. The fact he isn’t is why you’re even reading this to begin with.
I’m not saying Niskanen wanted to end his life or anything. I’m not saying the Capitals even wanted to hurt him. It’s not looked at that way. It’s looked at as they don’t want him to finish the series. That’s it. But it’s on the NHL to look at this as a potential strategy.
I’m not accusing the Capitals of doing anything exceptional. I’m just entertaining the possibility. I originally scoffed at the theories being tossed around. The mysterious team meeting. The dressing of 7 defencemen. I thought to myself, we’re talking about human beings. We’re talking about professional athletes who I admire. Could you really believe the Capitals, who albeit did go all in for the Cup this year and are desperate to exorcise their playoff demons, talked things over and decided the best course of action was to eliminate Crosby at all costs? Could you really believe a professional coach would intentionally dress 7 defencemen knowing he’d be down to 6 at some point in the game? Could you really believe they were all sworn to secrecy?
It seems ridiculous. It seems far fetched. On the other hand, it also at one point seemed far fetched for a professional football team to offer its players a headhunting bounty. Think about it. An NFL team allegedly paid substantial sums of money to its players based on who could perform the most injury causing, potentially career ending, and life threatening intentional hits to the head, even while the league was going out of its way to try and eliminate head shots from the game. While some of the player suspensions were eventually overturned, the coaches suspensions were not. Even if not entirely true, I don’t believe for one second the general idea of at least some sort of bets and payments for taking out certain players didn’t, and still doesn’t, exist in the NFL.
I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the NHL to simply ask a few questions. Interview some people and ask what was said at the meeting. Ask why the team dressed 7 defencemen. I don’t think they have the right to question every team at all times. I do, however, think they have the right to investigate after a major injury under questionable circumstances.
IF, heaven forbid, something happens to a Washington Capitals player in Game 4, I’m sure the Capitals will be asking the NHL to consider the idea of premeditation. Why would the Capitals then be exempt just because they fired the first shot?
As I said, I don’t think a Department of Player Safety decision either way makes or breaks this case. It’s bigger than that. It’s potentially a man’s life.