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The non-call in the Red Wings-Blue Jackets game was the right one — here’s why

Red Wings fans were up in arms after Henrik Zetterberg’s stick was broken by Brandon Dubinsky, resulting in the Blue Jackets scoring the game-winning goal. The officials were right not to make the call, though.
via NHL/Streamable

via NHL/Streamable

Referees aren’t infallible. No one, not even the best officials in the world, would argue that. You need look no further than the replay system as proof positive that even the most hawk-eyed of zebras can make a mistake. But when it comes to the call — or rather the non-call — in overtime of Tuesday’s game between the Red Wings and Blue Jackets, referees Ian Walsh and Francis Charron made the right decision, even if Detroit faithful won’t be happy to hear it after the resulting the game-winning goal.

The controversial decision came late in overtime as Henrik Zetterberg carried the puck through the neutral zone and attempted to weave his way through Brandon Saad and Brandon Dubinsky. As Zetterberg appeared set to slip between the two Blue Jackets, kicking the puck to his forehand as he eluded their checks, Dubinsky came around, swinging his stick in an apparent last-ditch effort to thwart the play. The result was contact with Zetterberg’s stick, causing it to snap about six inches from the heel of the blade.

Zetterberg immediately raised his arms, appealing for a call, and the Joe Louis Arena crowd booed loudly. As play continued, Columbus moved the puck up ice, the puck was worked to Seth Jones and he tallied the game-winning goal on a perfectly placed slap shot. As one can expect, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill wasn’t too pleased with the call post game, nor was Zetterberg, saying he couldn’t quite understand why it hadn’t been called. 

There is an explanation, however, and the most experienced referee in league history, Kerry Fraser, said his striped-shirt-wearing brethren made the right decision not to slap Dubinsky with a slashing minor.

“The true criteria is a powerful and forceful chop on the stick that would cause it to break rendering the player unable to play with the broken stick,” Fraser, who has refereed more games than any other NHL official, said. “(Dubinsky’s play) was a one-handed swing in a stick check motion down low, the two shafts cross and the Columbus player’s stick actually contacts the ice on the opposite side. It wasn’t what you would call a direct hit.”

That’s the letter of the law, too. Rule 61 of the NHL rulebook, which covers slashing, states that “any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.” And one could make the argument that Dubinsky was, indeed, trying to play the puck. Had Zetterberg not kicked the puck forward, there’s a chance Dubinsky’s making stick-on-puck contact there.

Referees can also take into account the location of the infraction, as well. The puck was in the neutral zone when Dubinsky made the play on Zetterberg. He wasn’t in a shooting position, wasn’t in position to score and was handling the puck at least 100 feet from the opposing goal. Fraser said that would have been a minimal factor, but a factor nevertheless.

But, more than anything, what has raised the ire of everyone in this instance, from Blashill to Zetterberg and fans across social media, is that the stick was rendered useless by the perceived slash. Shouldn’t that be enough to warrant the call, given that Zetterberg is effectively removed from the play? Fans may have been trained to think that way with the number of the stick-on-stick penalties that have been seen in the era of the one-piece, composite stick, but it’s not exactly the case.

“It’s tough on the officials because the expectation from most everybody is that anytime a stick is broken by an opponent using his stick on that stick, or knocking it out of the opponent’s hands, that a penalty will result. That’s the expectation,” Fraser said. “But good judgment in this case prevailed, because the real criteria is a powerful and forceful chop.”

One way to look at is to judge what the call would have been if, in the given scenario, both players were using wooden sticks. On a play such as Dubinsky’s, Zetterberg’s wooden stick almost assuredly wouldn’t have broken on contact. In addition, it’s unlikely Dubinsky would have been whistled had he hit Zetterberg in the legs when swinging around to make a play on the puck. It’s it not a slash to the body, it’s hard to call it a slash on the stick.

“If he hits the guy in the shin pad, that’s not a slashing penalty,” Fraser explained. “If he two hands a guy in the legs, that’s a slashing penalty. If he two hands the stick and causes it to break, and the resulting action is a breakage of the stick, then 99 percent of the time, it’s a penalty.”

(Video via Reddit)

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