Duncan Keith's Elbow: Another Case Against Letting the Players Police Themselves

Headshot comin'
Photo by Elsa via Getty Sport

For those of you who haven't heard, Duncan Keith laid a pretty nasty elbow on Daniel Sedin on Wednesday. If you missed it, you can check out the video here. As you can see, Keith hit the blindside + elbow + head shot trifecta. Throw in a little interference and some intent to injure and we've got a recipe for a mighty fine suspension. I don't really want to discuss the legality of the hit though as it's pretty clear which side of the law this one falls on. What I want to discuss is the how and why of this hit and how it could have easily been prevented.

The likely motivation for Keith's elbow to Sedin's head was this hit from earlier where Sedin made contact with Keith's head. The referee closest to the action was trying to get out of the way of the play and has his head turned as the hit was made. Unfortunate, but it happens. The second referee is out of the picture. Who knows what he was looking at, but it likely would have been a difficult call to make from as far away as he was. As a result, Sedin's hit went unpunished.

Minutes later, in an apparent effort to scientifically prove that two wrongs don't make a right, Keith got his retribution. Dan O'Halloran (#13) and Francois St. Laurent (#38) both appear to have had a clear view. You can't see St. Laurent in the video but Halloran put his arm up immediately. Based on St. Laurent's position seen in other clips, he had a great view of it too. O'Halloran was farther away but also had a clear view. I'm not sure if they discussed it with the linesmen, but Derek Amell (#75) was 15 feet away from the hit and was looking directly at it. Easy call. Or so we thought. The call was a 2 minute minor for elbowing when a major + game misconduct seemed obvious. My reaction? "Uh oh, here we go again..."

Along with head shots, a big issue in hockey circles lately has been whether or not the players should police themselves or if the league needs to control things. An extension of this argument is whether or not fighting belongs in hockey. Some in the hockey world - let's call them "Team Burke", for no particular reason - believe the players should police themselves. Team Burke is for the most part made up of a specific type of individual, consisting of mostly old school guys that like tough, physical hockey. Some members of Team Burke dress funny and like good Canadian boys. Some talk about "the code" a lot. Others really, really dislike Eric Lindros. There are a lot of tough guy personas as well. Team Burke's general philosophy is to "just let 'em play". They argue that fighting is the tool by which the players will police themselves; the players just punch each other a few times and all is forgiven. It's been that way for years and should continue to be that way, they say.

In theory, I don't really have a problem with that argument. Here's the problem with letting the players police themselves through fighting though: the theory is nice, but a lot of the time, it simply doesn't happen in practice. Look at who was involved in this incident: Duncan Keith and Daniel Sedin. Some players just do not and will not fight. Daniel Sedin and Duncan Keith are two such players. Sedin has never fought in his NHL career while Keith has five career fights in the NHL, with almost all of them as a young player trying to establish himself. Keith has just one fight in the last four seasons. Perhaps Keith wouldn't have felt the need to exact revenge had Sedin fought to answer for his hit on Keith, perhaps he would have. Either way, I didn't see any Blackhawk challenge Daniel Sedin to a fight to answer for the hit and even if they had it's extremely unlikely Sedin would have obliged. Keith wasn't really in a fighting mood on Wednesday night either though, as evidenced by him refusing to drop the gloves with numerous Canucks challengers including Alex Burrows, Max Lapierre, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Kesler, Zack Kassian, Dale Weise, and who knows how many others following his elbow to Sedin's face. How are these players supposed to police themselves if neither player wants to use the generally agreed-upon method? We saw what Keith did, and it was a clear violation of GAAP, or generally accepted altercation principles.

It seems that most hockey folks and executives would like to see the league take charge and hand out stricter punishments. As a result of the recent emphasis placed on player safety, there's constantly a debate about getting the players and GMs - especially the old school, "let 'em play" types - to buy in and get on board with having the NHL dole out punishment. One group that's forgotten in all the talk though, is the referees.

You see, even worse than the old school, "let 'em play"-type executives is the "let 'em play" referees. If this whole player safety thing is going to work, the referees need to buy in to the movement too. Francois St. Laurent is a relatively new official and I'm not yet familiar with his style, but Dan O'Halloran - who made the call - has a bit of a reputation as a let 'em play type of official and this situation was officiated in exactly that manner. Duncan Keith received the bare minimum for what was an egregious violation of the rules and looked as intentional as intentional gets. This was one of - if not the most - severe and intentional infractions I had seen all season. In trying to think of as obvious and intentional an elbow as this one, the closest I can come up with are Patrice Cormier's chicken wing on Mikael Tam in 2010 or Jack Johnson's cheap shot on Steve Downie in the 2006 World Juniors. Neither took place in the NHL so they're not quite comparable, but it's still not exactly good company to be in. Watching this game live Wednesday night, it was so bad that I actually exclaimed out loud.

As the 2 minute minor ruling was made, I wondered how a minor penalty could be called. First I wondered what sort of dirt the Blackhawks have on O'Halloran, then I briefly considered the possibility that Duncan Keith may in fact be a real life wizard. I eventually came to the conclusion that the only logical explanation is that the officials didn't want to make a call that would sway the balance of power in the game. In typical "let 'em play" fashion, we wouldn't want to determine the outcome of the game with a 5 minute power play, would we? Or by kicking out a team's best defenseman. Nah, let's just call the 2 minute minor so Gregson doesn't bitch at us after the game and let 'em play. The players can handle this themselves, just like they handled the initial hit on Keith and that worked out totally fin... ugh. Damn it.

Hockey history is littered with ugly incidents when the players try to police themselves; Keith isn't alone. Canucks fans in particular ought to be quite familiar with what happens when players police themselves. Bertuzzi-Moore is one of the ugliest incidents in NHL history and McSorely-Brasher isn't much better. This isn't a new development either. Remember when Gary Suter intentionally cross-checked Paul Kariya in the face in 1998? Dan Marouelli, another old school, "let 'em play"-type was the referee in that game and no penalty was called on the play. Suter was then suspended for four games - yes, only four - by the NHL's VP of guessed it, Brian Burke. How about when Maurice Richard infamously gave Hal Laycoe a tomahawk chop to the head in the 1950s or when Wayne Maki FRACTURED TED GREEN'S SKULL with a two-hander to the head in the late 60s? I could go on for ages with examples but you get the point. Across eras and ages, letting the players police themselves has historically led to dangerous decisions being made. It doesn't happen always or even often, but often enough to be unacceptable if player safety is to be a priority.

Over the course of the next two hours, we saw what happens when we let the players police themselves; the game regressed into a series of cheap shots and generally sloppy hockey. Scrums, face washes and noogies were plentiful. Slashes and cross-checks became the norm. Gloved punches were traded like Pokémon cards back in 6th grade. Alex Burrows kneed a guy in the groin, presumably because he wouldn't fight. Letting them play worked out badly for all parties involved. It worked out badly for Sedin because now he has a brain injury. I'm no doctor, but I feel confident in saying that brain injuries are like, really bad for you. Wanting to be sure though, when my brother - who is a doctor - came over the other day, I asked him about it. He first looked puzzled, then asked if I thought I had a brain injury, and eventually concurred, saying "yeah, they're pretty bad." So there you have it. I'd recommend avoiding brain injuries when at all possible. It worked out badly for Keith too because he'll lose out on the next 5 games down the home stretch. And he'll lose 150,000 big monies. It worked out badly for the league because it makes the NHL look like a bunch of bloodthirsty barbarians. It worked out badly for the fans because now they don't get to watch one of the most talented and exciting players in the world for who knows how long. That's a real bummer. We got really lucky this time around because thank god there's two of him, but the NHL doesn't have another set of identical twins to sacrifice one of. This was our one freebie and next time we might not be so lucky.

Nothing positive came from letting the players police themselves. Letting them play became dangerous for the players, unexciting to watch and made the league look like exactly the type of image it has been trying to get rid of. Mr. Shanahan gave Keith a 5 game suspension, but the supplemental discipline process didn't address the dangerous gong show of a hockey game that the next two hours became. The supplemental discipline system should be just that - supplemental. Controlling dangerous plays and protecting the players both starts and finishes with the referees. If player safety is going to be a priority, the referees need to get on board with the plan.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this FanPost are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the staff.

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