Montreal Canadiens fans were incensed Wednesday when star defenseman P.K. Subban was ejected in the second period of Game 1 against Ottawa after he slashed Sens rookie Mark Stone. But don’t blame the officials on this one – the rules gave them no choice but to kick him out.
You know that, no matter what else happens in every Stanley Cup tournament, there will always be at least one controversy related to NHL officiating. If it’s not a personal relationship between a referee and a particular player some fans and media focus on, it’s a debatable call that earns the ire of the public (and often, the team on the wrong end of the call). And it didn’t take very long at all for that officiating controversy to take place in the 2015 post-season: in the second period of Game 1 of Montreal’s first-round series against Ottawa Wednesday night, Canadiens star defenseman P.K. Subban was assessed a five-minute major penalty for slashing and a game misconduct.
The ejection of Subban enraged Habs fans, especially after Sens phenom Mark Stone – who, after being slashed by Subban on the penalized play, writhed around in great pain and left the game – returned to action a few minutes later. But if you think Subban was wronged to be given so harsh a penalty, don’t blame the officials. Blame the league and its philosophy of basing punishments on injury and thus encouraging players to embellish.
To be certain, Subban’s slash of Stone’s arm was (a) a two-hander; (b) vicious; and (c) could easily have caused serious damage to him:
So when Stone left the ice in agony and it looked as if he wouldn’t return, the officials had no choice but to eject Subban. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser explained why in a tweet:
Rule 61 Slashing: when an injury occurs, a major penalty MUST be assessed. Game Misconduct automatic!
— Kerry Fraser (@kfraserthecall) April 16, 2015
Indeed, Rule 61.3 in the NHL rulebook says that a major penalty for slashing “must be called when injury occurs”, and Rule 61.5 makes clear that, “whenever a major penalty is assessed for slashing, a game misconduct penalty must also be imposed.” That’s pretty straightforward, and the reason why referees Dave Jackson and Steve Kozari conferred after the play and still kicked Subban out of the game. It’s mandatory, and if Kozari and Jackson had’ve allowed Subban to continue playing, they would’ve been derelict in their duties.
However, if you want to debate the sanity of basing a system of punishments on the degree of injury suffered by the aggrieved player, have at it. You’re preaching to the choir here. If you think it’s ridiculous the league draws a difference between the guy who gets lucky his career isn’t ended by an intentionally over-the-top slash and the guy who does get seriously injured, I couldn’t agree more with you.
But you can’t blame the officials for enforcing the rules as they’re written. If you did, you’d be the prime suspect in a classic case of shooting the messenger.
You can argue the type of slash Subban put on Stone happens every day without any penalty called, and you’d be absolutely right on that count. You can make the case Stone embellished the injury, and perhaps you’re right about that as well. (That said, Stone did have to leave the game for good later on, and was favoring the arm Subban slashed. Maybe that injury happened after he returned from the slash, but maybe not.) However, these are all side issues compared to the real problem with the league: intentional areas of grey in its rulebook. The injury shouldn’t matter in deciding the fate of the offending player. If you drill someone head-first into the boards from behind and paralyze him, you didn’t mean to do it, but you gambled with fate nonetheless, and that choice you made is the problem. That same awful choice isn’t less awful because your opponent walked away without a scratch.
Maybe it’s wrong in the grand scheme of things to kick out any player who makes that kind of slash, but maybe it’s also not nearly enough to just give him a five-minute penalty and otherwise shrug our collective shoulders. If the NHL cracked down on the common, vicious slashes with tougher penalties that didn’t hinge on a player’s health status, there would be no confusion and anger after a play like the one involving Subban and Stone – and no reason for any NHLer to make an injury out to be worse than it is.