In the end, it made no difference that Connor McDavid plays the game the right way. The fact he had no nefarious intent meant nothing, nor did it make a difference that he was “finishing his check,” which is the hockey player equivalent to the dog ate my homework.
And in handing out a two-game suspension for his headshot to Nick Leddy in a game Thursday night, it made absolutely no difference to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety that McDavid is the best player on the planet. Nor should it have. But there’s just one caveat here. If the league is going to apply that standard to McDavid when he steps on the wrong side of the rulebook, it’s only fair that it should also apply its own rules against the players who step on the wrong side of the rulebook to try to stop him from being the best player in the world. For too long, too many people in hockey have blindly accepted the ridiculous notion that because a player is more natural gifted, harder working and more dedicated than others, he should also have to put up with abuse that marginal players do not.
So can we all agree on some kind of standard here? Because that’s what the NHL is having us do by suspending McDavid for two games. When you look at his hit on Leddy, it’s almost a textbook case of a violation of Rule 48, for which the standard first-offender penalty is two games. Great. We’re all for that. And when you consider the situation and whether or not the NHL’s best player and top attraction should sit for two games and lose almost $135,000 in salary, simply juxtapose the two players involved. If it had been Leddy delivering that kind of hit on McDavid, the calls for a ban would have been swift and loud.
It’s easy to believe McDavid when he says he had no intent make contact with Leddy’s head. But like every other player in the league, McDavid has to be responsible with his body and has to be in control of his bodychecks. It was up to him to assess the situation and let up without finishing his check, one that was deemed to be avoidable. As DOPS director George Parros said in the video explaining the decision: “It is important to note that both factors of the illegal-check-to-the-head rule are met on this hit.” Namely, that Leddy’s head was the principal point of contact and that McDavid had plenty of time to avoid making the hit. And the notion that Leddy let up and/or changed the position of the body simply doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny.
The only problem here is that McDavid received only a minor penalty on the play, when he actually should have received a major and a game misconduct. Had that happened, he would not have been available for Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock to tap him on the shoulder and send him out for overtime and he would not have been available to score the overtime winner at 1:22 of the extra period.
But with this suspension, we can probably now put to rest the notion that the NHL has its class pets, who also happen to be the best players in the league, and treats them less strictly when it comes to on-ice discipline. There has long been the thought among those who don’t particularly like Sidney Crosby that the league turns a blind eye to his miscreant activity, such as an ugly slash on Marc Methot and a spear to Ryan O’Reilly’s nether region. There was much outrage in Philadelphia that Evgeni Malkin received one game for a baseball swing that missed, while Radko Gudas received two games for a two-handed helmet tap. That’s fair to some degree. Malkin deserved five games for that particular piece of viciousness, just as Gudas deserved more than two games as a repeat offender. Superstars don’t often find themselves getting suspended, but it happens. Jaromir Jagr once got 10 games for bumping a referee. Alex Ovechkin has been suspended three times and, of course, Rocket Richard received the mother of all suspensions when he was sentenced to the final three games of the regular season and all of the playoffs (which amounted to 12 games) for viciously striking an opponent with his stick and punching a linesman in 1955.
So the league actually does hold its superstars accountable. As it should. But that has to go both ways because you can’t treat a player such as Connor McDavid the same as any other player when it comes to punishing him, then hold him to a higher standard when it comes to putting up with the same kind of abuse.