The general rule of thumb in the NHL for supplemental discipline is that one playoff game is the equivalent of two regular-season games. So what is the equivalent when it comes to pre-season games? Well, that’s unclear, but we do know that if a guy goes out and sucker punches one of the league’s premier defensemen, a guy who also happens to have a history of concussions, despite that player having no interest in engaging in a fight, that will cost you five meaningless games and not a penny will be extracted from your bank account.
It also sends a clear message to any player who wants to skip the pre-season games that all he has to do is go out and try to scramble an opponent’s brain and, voila, instant vacation. Of course, sending messages has never been a strong suit of the oxymoron known as the NHL Player Safety Department.
That is not to say that the sentence for the remainder of the pre-season to Max Domi for his sucker punch to the face of Aaron Ekblad is a case of zero punishment for Domi and the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs are desperately seeking a No. 1 center and wanted to use the pre-season to determine whether Domi might be able to fill that role, with Jonathan Drouin as his left winger. That experiment is now on hold and Domi, who had a wonderful opportunity to make a positive first impression and quiet the critics who thought the Canadiens got robbed when they acquired him from the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk, will sit, a victim of his own recklessness and lack of discipline.
So the suspension is not a complete farce. But it’s close. Listen to DOPS director George Parros’ tone in the video explaining the suspension. “This is roughing,” he says of Domi’s infraction. He describes how Domi delivers a “forceful, bareknuckle punch to Ekblad’s face,” despite the fact that Ekblad is not a “willing combatant.” (Seriously. Willing combatant. That’s the kind of vernacular this league uses. Once again, it goes to show how far in the sand some the heads are of some of the people who hold the levers of power in this league.)
Parros points out that, “it is important to note that at no point in this altercation does Ekblad show any intent of participating in a fight,” and that, “frustrated by Ekblad’s unwillingness to fight, Domi drops his stick and glove and delivers a forceful blow to Ekblad’s face, causing a cut that required medical attention.” Just when you think Parros is going to lower the boom, the comes out the with equivalent of, “The NHL Department of Player Safety sentences Max Domi to reciting the Rosary with his grandmother each night for the next two weeks.”
Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo called the infraction “gutless,” but with all respect, he’s a little off the mark here. As the NHL organically weans itself off one-dimensional enforcers whose only redeeming quality is their ability to beat up people, this is an indication that old habits die very, very hard. Domi was simply living by the code of hockey that allows for him to drop his gloves and fight an opponent as payback for what he perceives to be an unpunished infraction against him, in this case a harmless slash. And the hockey world has always been tolerant of guys who use a sledgehammer to kill a fly. It has also taught Domi that when one guy drops his gloves, the natural and honorable instinct is for the other guy to do the same and engage. So don’t necessarily blame Domi for this because he was simply following the unwritten rules.
The only problem is, the game is changing. Not quickly enough, but it’s changing. When you think about it, the Domi incident had all the markings of the Todd Bertuzzi attack on Steve Moore, minus the sneak attack from behind. Both incidents involved one player who wanted to fight and another who didn’t, which was followed by a sucker punch to the head. The Bertuzzi incident was more than 14 years ago and it appears the hockey world hasn’t learned much from it. Almost 40 years ago in the NBA, Rudy Tomjanovich received a sucker punch from Kermit Washington and ended up with a brain injury so serious that he was able to taste his own spinal fluid. That’s how sideways these things can go sometimes.
That’s why Max Domi deserved a suspension of substance, not a vacation from the rest of the pre-season. But, as usual, the band of former enforcers who run NHL player safety saw differently.
Carry on, then…