Leaving aside the question, for a moment, of whether NHL players should be wearing cut-resistant socks (they should) and shirt sleeves (they really, really should), there is something instructive and revealing about the Achilles tendon injury that befell Erik Karlsson on Wednesday.
The overwhelming reaction in the hockey world has been “it was a hockey play,” accompanied by a shrug. The NHL has announced Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins will face no further discipline, that it was just one of those things.
Okay. And why is that good enough, exactly?
A superstar player has suffered a season-ending injury on a sequence where it can persuasively be argued Cooke engaged in a dangerous play when he pinned Karlsson to the boards with his left skate in the air and then raked the back of the young Swede’s calf.
At best, it was incompetence, and at worst it was negligent.
Argue all you want that it was just a mistake, an accident, in the civilian world, people are generally held responsible for accidents, intentional or not.
But in the NHL, discipline is too often based on intent and on a standard of incontrovertible evidence (apparently a bite is not a bite unless there is an HD close-up of the presumed offender’s mandibles at work.)
In international rugby, the toughest sport in the world, there are sanctions for dangerous and violent play.
There’s even a nebulous section in the laws about conduct that brings the game into disrepute – and for persistent infringements, although those generally apply only in the context of a single game.
In pro-level soccer, dangerous play can be sanctioned retroactively even if it wasn’t punished in a game – and intent is generally not a major consideration. If you went into a tackle with both feet off the ground, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt the other guy. Sometimes suspensions are doled out despite the fact no one got hurt.
People will say that hockey is a fast game, and that stuff happens when you have 10 skaters flying around a rink with sabres attached to their feet.
But in the case of a player's stick, they are expected to be in control with some minor exceptions (the follow through on a shot, for example) – indeed the NHL already punishes inadvertent actions regarding sticks, so why not skates?
Three players have been forced to miss games this year because of a cut due to a skate, the toll is over a dozen if you go back a couple of years.
It’s a safety issue (yet another one) that needs to be addressed through improved equipment, yes – although ask a short-track speed skater and they’ll tell you cut-resistant is not the same thing as cut-proof – and by modifying behaviour.
Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson asked a pertinent question after the game: why did Cooke hit Karlsson that way?
The easy answer is: it happens all the time. Former NHL defenceman Aaron Ward pulled out two illustrations from the Calgary/Dallas game on Wednesday to show how common it is. This writer counted at least half-a-dozen more cases, including one that was almost identical to the play on which Karlsson got hurt.
Again: just because it happens all the time, does that mean it’s all good?
Now, a word on Matt Cooke.
It’s been said by many that this would be simply passed off as a regrettable accident had it been Sidney Crosy, say, instead of Cooke, who had been the one who cut Karlsson.
True, reputation can colour one’s opinion when it comes to this sort of thing.
But sometimes that reputation is well-earned. Cooke has worked incredibly hard to transform his game since a spate of suspensions for dirty hits a couple of years ago.
He deserves immense credit for that, and it’s not fair to question his motives in this case, he says he feels terribly about it, and there’s no basis on which to challenge his sincerity.
But Cooke has shown in the past he has trouble hitting defencemen into the boards cleanly.
If he doesn’t come in from behind (ie. the Fedor Tyutin hit in 2011), he has his elbow high (ie., the Ryan McDonagh hit), or he’s got a foot off the ice, and guys are getting hurt.
When I saw the Karlsson hit, I immediately thought of an almost identical play in the 2010 playoffs, when he hit Andrei Markov in a similar position on the ice.
If you watch the replay here you’ll see he has one foot off the ice.
He didn’t cut Markov in that sequence, but the Russian did blow out his knee.
That incident made me think of another incident in that series: early on, P.K. Subban’s skate blade caught the top of Jordan Staal’s foot as they got tangled up in a mid-ice collision.
Subban pleaded innocence, Pittsburgh fans bayed for justice and muttered about dirty play, Staal missed several games and came back a few days later, playing on one leg.
There’s so much talk in the NHL about accountability, but it seems players aren’t always held to account for their actions.
You can’t eliminate injuries in a sport like hockey.
But Cooke has shown that with determination and focus he can change the way he operates.
If he were to face a sanction for what happened to Karlsson, it’s a reasonable bet that he and others around the league would stop lifting their skates off the ice in similar situations.
This is a teachable moment, and the hockey world is just shrugging its shoulders.