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Why slow-motion replay can deceive us when debating suspensions

Studying Joe Thornton's hit on T.J. Oshie frame by frame looks incriminating. It also distorts the truth. Thornton had very little time to avoid Oshie's head.

The NHL wasn’t quite the bloodbath that was the NFL Monday, but it wasn’t a good night for either league. On the hockey side, the slate of games was dotted with violent incidents.

The most prominent, of course, was San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton’s mammoth hit on defenseless Washington Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie, which led to tough guy Tom Wilson exacting street justice on ‘Jumbo’ in the form of a fight.

So does Thornton deserve a suspension for driving his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame into Oshie’s face, smashing his head into the boards and knocking him out of the game?

Plenty of outraged hockey fans on social media said yes last night. But the key to understanding this play is understanding how to watch it. Here’s a look at the hit in slow motion:

The uproar is understandable if we judge the play only by this footage. Oshie battles with Logan Couture, falls, then turns to face Thornton, who appears to stare him down and truly think about what he’s doing before smashing Oshie’s face.

But sometimes slow-motion replay can deceive us and create the illusion of time. Thornton did not in fact have all day to pre-meditate this act. He made a split-second decision. Watch the hit again at full speed:

It appears Thornton was trying to finish a check – if that. He didn’t leave his feet or crouch down and launch upward to generate extra momentum. He glided into what was going to be an upright Oshie just before the impact occurred. Rule 48.1, illegal check to the head, explains that it must be considered “whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to head contact."

So while Thornton did end up bludgeoning Oshie in the head, Thornton wasn’t headhunting, and the contact was unlucky. It’s nothing anyone wants to see, but it happens sometimes during puck battles. We thus should not expect to see any supplemental discipline from the NHL. Tangling with the fearsome Wilson was all the punishment we’ll see.

Same goes for Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, who got ejected last night for a hit to the head on Philadelphia Flyers’ Dale Weise. It was just unlucky. Hamonic was lining up for what would’ve been a clean hit, but Weise reached for the puck just before impact, putting his head in a vulnerable position:

There was nothing Hamonic could do. We thus shouldn’t expect supplemental discipline for Hamonic, either. The ejection means nothing in the context of suspensions. The officials and the Department of Player Safety operate independently of one another. An ejection can lead to no suspension, just as a player can get suspended for a play that wasn’t even deemed a penalty by in-game officials.

The only way we would eliminate hits like Thornton’s and Hamonic’s would be to follow the suggestions of Ken Dryden and ban all contact with the head, including accidental blows. Doing so would eventually change player behaviour – but would drastically reduce hitting in general. So it’s a question of how little hitting players and fans are willing to have in their game.

A different beast entirely: Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon’s slash on Caps blueliner Madison Bowey. New player safety boss George Parros has spoken about his desire to eliminate “non-hockey” plays, and Dillon’s retaliatory slash, in which he rotated his hips to generate extra impact on Bowey’s arm, had no impact on the play. Dillon may not escape supplemental discipline for his act. Slo-mo replay can’t save him.



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