On Friday night Oilers hopeful Taylor Fedun was skating into his own end, looking to touch the puck for what would have been icing when he was tripped by Eric Nystrom. The fall and crash into the boards that followed resulted in a broken femur, an ended season, and likely a long painful recovery for a player that had turned a lot of heads at training camp.
I wasn't watching the game on Friday but when I got word through email, images of similar play involving ex-Wild and Oiler defenseman Kurtis Foster immediately came to mind. To say that those thoughts left me feeling sick would be fair. I've watched hockey long enough to know that players get hurt, it's inevitable but that doesn't soften the blow for me. On Saturday morning when I logged onto this site and saw the video of the fall posted by Derek it was just as bad as I had imagined. While I expected an sickening fall, what caught me off guard was the number of fans, based on the results of the poll included in that post, who felt the play didn't merit a suspension.
Watching that play and thinking about the suspensions handed down by new NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan during the preseason I guessed that Nystrom would receive 10 games. The theme of the NHL's 2011 preseason has been player safety and I thought that would carry over to an assessment of this play as well but for some reason all signs points to no suspension at all. I can't help but wonder why not.
Disclaimer time. I'm sure some people will read this and discount what I have to say simply because I'm a biased Oiler fan who just wants retribution for an injured player on my team, that isn't the case though. I think hockey is a fast, physical game where players get hurt from time to time. I don't believe anything will ever be done, nor should it be, that will stop all players from being hurt. Injures are a part of the game that we have to accept but I don't think we should be accepting of dangerous plays that provide no benefit to the game. Believe me, if Fedun and Nystrom swapped spots I'd be calling for Fedun to be suspended the same way I am with Nystrom today.
Now back to the issue at hand. On the play the referees assessed Nystrom a boarding major and a game misconduct. My first though as to why there might not be a suspension is that the penalty call had been incorrect and that was possibly tying Shanahan's hands in some way with respect to a suspension. In deciding if the right penalty call was made I thought that the NHL rule book would be a good place to start. This is new wording for Rule 41 (for some reason the NHL rule book has not yet been updated to include the same wording).
41.1 Boarding - A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.
There is an enormous amount of judgment involved in the application of this rule by the referees. The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize contact. However, in determining whether such contact could have been avoided, the circumstances of the check, including whether the opponent put himself in vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the check or whether the check was unavoidable can be considered. This balance must be considered by the referees when applying this rule.
Any unnecessary contact with a player playing the puck on an obvious "icing" or "off-side" play which results in that player hitting or impacting the boards is "boarding" and must be penalized as such. In other instances where there is no contact with the boards, it should be treated as "charging."
Based on how the rule reads the on-ice officials were correct in giving Nystrom a boarding penalty on the play. Some of those coming to Nystrom's defense have pointed out that he was just playing the puck which I believe is probably true but also irrelevant. The wording is clear, "the onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize contact". Nystrom clearly didn't do this. Interestingly the rule doesn't differentiate between a body check or a stick check either.
More from Rule 41 (this is from the not yet updated NHL rule book but I can't find any reference to the penalties being changed in conjunction with the definition so I'm assuming this is still correct):
41.3 Major Penalty - The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a major penalty, based on the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, to a player guilty of boarding an opponent (see 41.5).
41.5 Game Misconduct Penalty - When a major penalty is imposed under this rule for a foul resulting in an injury to the face or head of an opponent, a game misconduct shall be imposed.
Here I think the referees, at least by the letter of law, overstepped their bounds a little in assessing a game misconduct. The major penalty was the correct call but there doesn't seem to be any justification for the ten and game that came with it as there was no injury to Fedun's head or face, just a snapped femur. Regardless, the assessment of the game misconduct means that Nystrom receives "an automatic fine of $200 and the case shall be reported to the Commissioner who shall have full power to impose such further penalties by way of suspension or fine" in accordance with Rule 23.
Based on the how the rules are written it seems to me that the on-ice officials got the call (mostly) right so Shanahan should be free to suspend Nystrom. Given that Nystrom was assessed a boarding penalty the on-ice officals must have felt that he initiated unnecessary contact with a vulnerable player, which combined with the severity of the injury suffered by Fedun, should be plenty of reason to hand Nystrom a multiple game suspension. And yet it appears that won't happen.
If Nystrom had followed Fedun right to the end of the rink and run him into the boards would he be suspended? Almost certainly he would have. Why should this situation be treated any differently? The penalty call would have been boarding in both cases and the potential for serious injury can be reasonably expected in both cases. Why then would one be suspendable and the other not? Are we so concerned with concussions that we no longer care about any other injuries?
Is it simply because some people see what Nystrom did, trying to negate an icing call, as a "hockey play"? Maybe driving hard to get an icing call waived off is an integral part of the NHL game but that doesn't mean Nystrom shouldn't be responsible for where he put his stick. I was told at a very young age to keep my stick out of an opponents feet because it leads to them tripping and me getting a penalty; I would imagine somewhere along the line Nystrom was told something similar. He had to have known what could happen when he chose to put his stick in Fedun's feet. Just because the injury happened during what some might deem to be a "hockey play" doesn't mean all responsibility goes out the window.
And I understand that Nystrom feels bad for what happened and that he went to the hospital to appologize in person. A noble gesture that proves Nystrom isn't a monster but also one that has nothing to do with whether or not he should be suspended. What happened happened, that he feels bad about it can't factor into the NHLs decision on supplemental discipline. If the NHL wants to protect their players then they need to send the message that how Fedun was injured is not acceptable and will be punished. In his very short time as the NHL head of discipline Brendan Shanahan has done some very good work but not suspending Nystrom is an opportunity missed and a step back for player safety.