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Latest NHL suspension is more an indictment of the game than it is of Rinaldo

Arizona Coyotes winger Zac Rinaldo received a six-game suspension for delivering a punch to the face of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard.

“While we understand that confrontations happen in the heat of the moment and escalate quickly, the onus remains on the player throwing the punch to ensure that he is facing a willing combatant. Otherwise, the player may be subject to on-ice or supplemental discipline.” — NHL director of player safety George Parros explaining Zac Rinaldo’s recent six-game suspension

Yup, George Parros actually said that. In 2017. And if there were ever more appropriate words uttered to describe how backward hockey can be sometimes, it would be difficult to find them.

This is not an indictment of Parros, who is proving to be a surprisingly strict disciplinarian, or his six-game suspension of Rinaldo for punching an unsuspecting opponent in a game two days before Christmas. But the Rinaldo incident and Parros’ subsequent explanation of his suspension for it speak volumes about the culture of violence in hockey and its stubborn insistence on continuing to employ players whose only redeeming qualities are they’re really good at creating mayhem and punching other players in the face.

There will be those who will tut-tut what Rinaldo did when he bare-knuckle punched an unsuspecting Samuel Girard and say that terrible things like that have nothing to do with fighting in hockey. But in reality, they have everything to do with fighting in hockey.

First of all, fighting in hockey created Zac Rinaldo. Lest anyone ever, ever try to put forth the notion that Rinaldo can actually play the game at a big-league level, please allow me to remind you that he scores a goal roughly once every 28 games and after this suspension, will have sat out more than twice as many games (25) in his NHL career due to suspensions than he has career goals (11). This is Rinaldo’s fifth NHL suspension, which dovetails nicely with the five suspensions he’s received in the American League and the five he was slapped with in the Ontario League, the majority of which have had nothing to do with fighting. In fact, while serving a five-game suspension in the NHL for an illegal hit in March 2016, he was slapped with another five-gamer in the AHL for a hit to the head. All this while averaging just 8:24 in ice time per game. The guy clearly can’t play, yet he is on his fourth NHL contract. As this corner has often said, it’s a good thing the NHL has guys like Zac Rinaldo around to protect people from guys like Zac Rinaldo.

Second, none of this would have happened if not for the NHL’s unwritten rule that any kind of hit, clean or dirty, to a skilled player, must be avenged. This is a league that relies on retribution and revenge the way most of us rely on oxygen and water. No comment, no over-the-top goal celebration, no real or perceived slight can go unpunished. And that really is what was at the heart of what occurred. Everything stems from a perfectly clean hit that Rinaldo delivered to Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon midway through the second period of a 0-0 game. After the hit, Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard approached Rinaldo with his stick slightly raised. It’s important to note that while Girard did nothing substantial to threaten Rinaldo, if not for the hit to MacKinnon, Girard would have had absolutely zero reason to go anywhere near Rinaldo on that play. Parros and the league acknowledged its own backward code when explaining the suspension, saying that immediately after the hit, “Rinaldo is on alert, surveying the ice anticipating the confrontation.” Parros then goes on to say, “we accept Rinaldo’s explanation that he believed that because Girard approached him after the hit that meant that Girard anticipated a fight…”

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There was no indication that Girard suffered any significant ill effects from the punch. He sat out the next 9:16 of game time, then returned to play 10 more shifts in the game, which accounted for 9:22 of the 17:18 he played in the game. When the two teams met again four nights later, Girard registered 16:02 in ice time. But the result could have been worse. Much, much worse.

The problem here is essentially that Rinaldo is being made to pay for the sins of a sport that has created, fostered, promoted and encouraged him to play the way he does. One of the reasons why Rinaldo was looking for a fight after the MacKinnon hit is that hockey has taught him to do just that. The NHL has done nothing to curb this kind of nonsense and instead sees fit to use five pages of the rulebook to cover fighting, which is just slightly more room than it devotes to goaltending equipment. When Girard approached Rinaldo after the MacKinnon hit, you can be assured it wasn’t to ask him what he thought of Pitch Perfect 3. He did it because hockey culture tells him that’s what he’s supposed to do. And it could have had disastrous consequences.

What Rinaldo did was inexcusable. But the fact that he was even in a position to do it is more an indictment of a sport that condones and promotes violence than it is of him. Against all forms of logic, the NHL continues to be stuck in the dark ages when it comes to protecting its players and as long as that’s the case, incidents like the one involving Rinaldo are going to continue. And those who actually love this stuff will click their tongues and talk about how it has no place in the game.

Carry on then…