In a perfect world, Milan Lucic would have been suspended for 10 games, or even more, for going all John Wick vigilante on Kole Sherwood of the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday night. But we live in a world where the NHL is skittish about having to deal with a Players’ Association that puts itself in the position of defending the miscreant while supposedly representing the rights of the aggrieved. So we’ll take the victories where we can here.
By any measure, the sucker punch Lucic delivered to Sherwood was vicious, unnecessary, over the top and potentially dangerous. It was hockey’s equivalent of taking a bazooka to a hornet’s nest. And it was the kind of dangerous play Lucic has been engaging in for years, as evidenced by the fact that he has been suspended and fined for similar kinds of sucker punches in the past three years. All told, Lucic has been suspended three times and fined five times over the course of his career prior to punching Sherwood with so much force that his head snapped back and he fell to the ice. (At which time Lucic tried to continue to mete out his own form of discipline by trying to get a couple more punches in.)
Should Sherwood have received a penalty for jabbing at the pad of Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich? Absolutely, he should have. And that’s exactly what happened. What he did not deserve was to be attacked by Lucic. As hanging judge George Parros pointed out, “the first contact between the players is Lucic’s glove hitting Sherwood’s face.”
Lucic is a menace at the best of times, and these are most definitely not the best of times. Lucic might be the unhappiest person making $5.25 million a year in the world. Along with anyone who has two eyes, he has likely come to the realization that the game has passed him by at breakneck speed and his contributions beyond anything physical are minimal. He’s watching the career he worked so hard to earn slip away from him and he’s probably not happy about it. He’s with a new team after a disastrous stint with his former team and he probably feel he needs to prove his worth. (Not to mention the fact that just seconds prior to the punch, Sherwood stripped him of the puck like he was nothing more than a minor annoyance, then went in and had a scoring chance.)
This brew has the potential to lead to something ugly. Really ugly. Like Todd Bertuzzi-ugly. Perhaps a two-game suspension, and the scarlet letter of now being a repeat offender if he steps out of line again, will cause Lucic to pause and think before he tries to punch someone’s head off again. But judging by the number of times he’s been suspended and fined, combined with the fact that this punishment is ridiculously light, perhaps not. And if that’s the case, more of the same could be on the way. Lucic is only 31 and was never fleet of foot to begin with, so there’s probably no skating coach in the world who can get him up to speed with the rest of the league. So if he wants to keep his spot on the fourth line, it could be more of the same.
The encouraging thing about this suspension is that it flies in the face of hockey’s long-accepted notion that if you touch a goaltender, even with a flick of the stick, you’d better be prepared to pay a steep price. Nobody wants to see Open Season on goaltenders, but perspective is necessary. Even if the NHL’s logic is twisted in only the way the hockey culture can twist logic, Parros makes that pretty clear in his ruling. “If Lucic wants to engage Sherwood, he must do so in a way that allows Sherwood a chance to defend himself, or at the very least, prepare for the confrontation,” Parros said in his ruling. “Here, the punch is thrown so Sherwood does not have a chance to get his hands up to either protect himself or choose to engage Lucic.”
So Milan Lucic sat out Calgary’s overtime loss in Washington Sunday night and will continue to cool his heels when the Flames host Arizona Tuesday night. Meanwhile, he’ll be almost $65,000 lighter in the wallet. Doesn’t seem like a bad deal for a punch in the head that vicious. In fact, it might even be well worth the cost for him and the Flames. Will it be enough to deter him from doing something like this again? The NHL had better hope so, or else it could have an incident on its hands that is a lot worse – and with much more grave consequences – than it did Saturday night.