There are few people in the hockey world as old-school as Darryl Sutter, the Los Angeles Kings' coach. Sutter played in an era when the word "concussion" was rarely uttered, or even acknowledged. Instead, there were all sorts of popular euphemisms for a head injury, including my descriptive favourite, "he had his bell rung."
So when Sutter was given the chance on Wednesday to be judge and jury on the matter of Raffi Torres's shoulder vs. Jarret Stoll's brain matter, he politely declined. What Sutter actually said was: "I haven't seen it and I'm not really interested. I mean, I'm not making a decision on it, so I don't know if it's good or bad or anything, right? That's for someone else to do.
"I totally leave it to the league and principals to look at those things."
The play in question occurred during the Kings' 2-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, when that battering ram of a human being, Torres, a Sharks forward, crushed Stoll with an open-ice hit toward the end of the second period. Stoll left the game, didn't return, and Torres received a two-minute charging minor on the play.
A day later, after the NHL's department of player safety determined that the play deserved a second longer look, Torres was summoned to New York for an in-person hearing with Brendan Shanahan, the league's chief disciplinarian.
Theoretically, the NHL's justice system mirrors that of the real world – a player is innocent until proved guilty. As a practical matter, if a player is asked to appear in person for a hearing, it generally means the league sees the play as something particularly egregious – and the player under scrutiny can expect more than just a casual slap on the wrist.
Under terms of the collective agreement, a lengthy suspension is once again in the cards for Torres, who will be evaluated as a repeat offender.
Replays showed the usual amount of grey area in a play that happened in the blink of an eye. Stoll was in his own zone, leaning forward to play the puck, as Torres came zooming in, clearly looking to make contact – which is perfectly legal under the rules as long as it is shoulder to shoulder.
It appeared as though, at the moment of impact, Torres made contact with Stoll, high on his chest, and then connected with Stoll's head on the followthrough. Stoll's head snapped back terribly and though he was officially listed as out of action day-to-day, Sutter implied that he would likely miss the rest of the series.
So what to do?
It was a violent play in a violent game, which still permits contact to the head under certain circumstances. The NHL has a rule (48.1) which specifies what a player can and cannot do in terms of targeting the head as the principal point of contact with a body check.
Without question, Torres was guilty of violating that rule during last year's playoffs, when his high hit on Marian Hossa concussed the Chicago Blackhawks forward and left him on the sidelines for the duration of the postseason.
Torres received a 25-game ban for that infraction; had it commuted to 21 games on appeal to commissioner Gary Bettman and started the year in the press box for the Coyotes, serving the final eight games of the ban. But the hit on Stoll was not nearly as violent or malicious and so, there's no real telling what Shanahan might do or say.
In fact, one of the secondary storylines going into the Sharks-Kings series was how Torres had been reformed, almost Matt Cooke-like, in the current season. It was a point Sharks' coach Todd McLellan made during the Vancouver Canucks series – how Torres had a found a way to play mostly within the rules. McLellan gave a lot of the credit to Coyotes' coach Dave Tippett – for reeling him in and teaching him what he could and could not do in the current NHL, where there is a greater focus on concussion awareness and prevention than there was in the "tape an aspirin on it" era.
Typically, with these things, there was a wide discrepancy between how the Sharks viewed the incident and what the Kings saw. Post-game, McLellan described the play as a clean hit and was unhappy that even a minor charging penalty had been called on the play. Sutter called it "careless;" promised his team was too disciplined to seek out retribution; and would only say about Stoll: "He was a big part of winning a Stanley Cup and a really good centre man and a guy who plays minutes, plays special teams. So obviously our player is quite a bit more important than theirs."
Even neutral observers were split. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, writing on his TSN blog, compared it the hit that Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Gryba delivered on the Montreal Canadiens' Lars Eller in the opening round that resulted in a two-game suspension. Former Devils defenceman Ken Daneyko, speaking as an analyst on the NHL's own network, said, "he did not leave his feet, it looked like he went for the shoulder, I don't see any maliciousness here. I see this as a part of playoff hockey, the puck's coming there and he's going to finish his hit."
Torres wasn't saying anything Wednesday, but after the game, told the San Jose Mercury News and other news outlets that he was not worried about supplementary discipline.
"To be honest with you, I didn't even think there was going to be a penalty," Torres said. "They called it charging, but I don't think that I launched myself. I took a step and a half, then I glided into him. Obviously he was leaning over. I got shoulder to his shoulder, and then it kind of looked, because he was leaning over, that it came up a little high. I didn't think it was a penalty, but I hope he's all right."
Well, Stoll is not all right and neither was Eller and no matter how long the outcry lasts, it comes down to this: As long as the NHL permits some contact with the head under certain circumstances, there will be head injuries. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous and not going to change anything, no matter how many times you suspend the likes of Raffi Torres.
NHL Rule 48.1 Illegal Check to the Head
A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.