13 April 2012

Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, and Todd Bertuzzi

Preface:  I'm reluctant to bring up Todd Bertuzzi, because bringing up Todd Bertuzzi in an argument is pretty much akin to comparing someone to Adolf Hitler, but please, bear with me here.  This post is not campaigning about how long Weber (or anyone else) should or shouldn't be suspended, but is more about the NHL, the way the NHL punishes to injury and not to the action, the role that luck plays within the entire process, and how head injuries are still not being appropriately regarded as "serious" injuries by the league.  

Preface 2: Damn, Yahoo's Nick Cotsonika beat me to the punch, with an excellent post on the Weber thing specifically and a couple of the same points, particularly as it relates to the nature of head injuries and the difficulties inherent to punishing them.  I think my piece reflects a lot more on the relevance of "luck" within the entire process.  In addition, I think there's an interesting point to the contrast between Bertuzzi, who was publicly crucified by the hockey community, and the Weber and Keith incidents.  Each incident was obviously different in some ways and similar in others, but ultimately, what it boils down to is luck: Bertuzzi was unlucky, and Weber and Keith were both fortunate.  Read on to see what I mean.

In case you haven't seen them (or haven't seen them recently) before I talk about them, here's a couple of important videos.

Apr 11, 2012: Shea Weber, angry about the way Zetterberg hit him from behind, tries to punch Henrik Zetterberg in the back of the head, then grabs his head and slams it into the glass.  Weber earns a $2,500 fine.

Mar 21, 2012: Duncan Keith, angry about an earlier hit (which to be fair, was a hit to Keith's head), blatantly ignores playing the puck, and elbows Daniel Sedin in the face:  Keith was suspended 5 games.  

Mar 8, 2004: Todd Bertuzzi, angry about a hit by Moore on Markus Naslund 18 days prior, trails Steve Moore on a play, before sucker punching him in the side/back of the head, and then driving him headfirst into the ice.  Bertuzzi was fined $250,000 and suspended indefinitely (which ended up being 13 regular season games, 7 playoff games, and then was unable to play professionally in any other league during the NHL lockout in 2004-05).  

The NHL has always been very clear in the fact that the severity of injury (if one occurred) plays a very significant role when it comes to the league doling out supplemental discipline.  Obviously, there's some issues with that.  If Steve Moore doesn't break his neck, and merely just has the facial lacerations, Bertuzzi doesn't get suspended for almost 18 months.  Henrik Zetterberg was ok after the Shea Weber incident, but if Detroit sits Z for a practice or sends him to a doctor "as a precaution", does the NHL then allow itself to be baited into giving Weber a suspension where they otherwise wouldn't?  There's a couple points to make here:

- The NHL's safety and discipline processes lend themselves to manipulation
There's a dangerous situation there, with the NHL putting itself in position to be manipulated.  Teams setting guys aside for "precautionary examinations" or tossing words around like "upper body injury" or "concussion-like symptoms" can manipulate the league into coming down harder on opponent teams.  As unlikely as it is (though, in sports, you never know), it also opens up the potential for teams to outright fake or exaggerate an actual injury, particularly when it happens to a bottom-6 guy in their lineup.  

Obviously Detroit prefers to have Zetterberg in the lineup, but what if Shea Weber took his swing at someone with more of a propensity for faking injury, or if he hit a more "disposable" 4th liner, where the team could replace him while the 4th liner sat with "concussion-like systems", and Shea Weber missed games?  That's a net win for Detroit, in a tight series.  Worst of all, that sort of manipulation threatens the integrity of the league, as we start getting into issues of massaging injuries, or outright faking injuries, or begging the question of if a guy is really injured.

- Suspension based on injury is suspension based on luck
What Shea Weber did was reckless and stupid.  I think that's pretty much undeniable.  Slamming Zetterberg's head into the boards got most of the attention, because it's something incredible and dramatic to say.  However, the worse part of what Weber did, in my opinion, was the major league swing he took at the back of Zetterberg's head, which ended up missing.  Weber actually tried to punch a guy as hard as he could in the back of the head and neck.  I don't think it is at all unreasonable to say that, had the punch connected, he certainly could have done some extremely serious damage to Henrik Zetterberg - a concussion, fractured vertebra, or worse.

Take a look at the Bertuzzi video again.  There's two things that Bertuzzi does to Steve Moore.  The first is a sucker punch to the back/side of the head/neck.  The second is driving him down into the ice.  I'm not going to claim to know what damage was done by what action, but one thing we can look at is Steve Moore's body when Bertuzzi punches him.  Look at the way his body goes limp upon the impact of Bertuzzi's fist, and how his hands aren't reaching out to try to break his fall, even before Bertuzzi jumps on his back.  I think its pretty fair to say that the sucker punch alone by Bertuzzi did some significant damage to Moore.  

I also think we can agree that Todd Bertuzzi didn't mean to break Steve Moore's neck.  Yet, the fact of the matter is, he did.  Bertuzzi did something abhorrently reckless and stupid, and he ended a guy's career.  Duncan Keith did something stupid and reckless, but he didn't end Daniel Sedin's career (that we know of).  Matt Cooke did something stupid and reckless, but at the time, we didn't know that he would end Marc Savard's career.  Shea Weber did something stupid and reckless, but he didn't end Henrik Zetterberg's career.  Tie Domi didn't end Scott Niedermayer's career.  Chris Simon did several extremely stupid and reckless things, but he didn't end Ryan Hollweg or Jarko Ruutu's careers.  

We, as a hockey community, set Todd Bertuzzi as this example of someone who did something absolutely unconscionable, that has absolutely no place in the game, an act so vile that we cannot allow such a thing to be considered justifiable in any way, shape, or form.  The reason we set Bertuzzi aside as the "Hitler" of online hockey arguments is not because of the reckless action he committed.  It's because of the fact that he was the one who happened to end a guy's career.  Todd Bertuzzi is the pinnacle of dirty hockey plays, not for the sucker punch, or for the piledriver, but primarily because of bad luck.  

If Steve Moore just has stitches and a concussion, Bertuzzi is still considered a dirty player, but not the way he is today.  If Jarko Ruutu's leg is slashed open and tendons are torn and his career is over, we put Chris Simon on that cross instead.  If Marc Savard's neck is broken instead of getting a "mere" concussion, we put Matt Cooke on that cross.  If Shea Weber connects on that punch to the back of Zetterberg's head, we nail Shea Weber to the cross.  

But he didn't.

Shea Weber could've been Todd Bertuzzi 2.0, but he got lucky.  He was fortunate that Henrik Zetterberg's head was down, looking at the puck, trying to knock it loose.  Should Weber be excused for doing something stupid, reckless, and extremely dangerous just because he lucked out?  Do we give Weber more lattitude because the play happened "in the moment"?  Is the difference not just reckless or malicious behavior, but premeditation?  Obviously, Bertuzzi's attack on Moore had some degree of premeditation (not that Bertuzzi meant to break his neck, but that he certainly meant to rough him up), and I think it's clear that Weber's did not.  But then what about Keith?  

- The NHL's standard operating procedures are inadequate in the "Concussion Era"
Duncan Keith's elbow on Daniel Sedin's face clearly involved some degree of premeditation.  He sees an opportunity, he doesn't even look or move towards the puck going by, and he goes for the cheap shot that he was looking to deliver.  It was just as dirty, just as premeditated, as the Bertuzzi/Moore play, wasn't it?  But due to the nebulous nature of concussions and head injuries, as opposed to the dramatic clarity of "broken neck", Duncan Keith didn't get nailed to a cross either.  

Duncan Keith's hit on Daniel Sedin was widely agreed to be a dirty hit.  However, there was a lot of justification given out both for Keith's cheap shot, as well as for the relatively short suspension that Keith was given.  Many rushed to point out the check that Sedin had previously put on Keith as being justification for Keith coming back with the elbow to the face, or for a reduced suspension for Keith.  I guess you can use that as a mitigating factor, but I'd be curious to hear why Steve Moore's hit on Markus Naslund doesn't mitigate what Todd Bertuzzi did.  

What if it turns out that Daniel Sedin's career really is over?  If that is the case, how is the Duncan Keith play not exactly like the Todd Bertuzzi one?  A premeditated attack on another player for a previous incident, which ended the victim's career.  The Duncan Keith situation happened a couple weeks ago, and Keith is already back from suspension, while Sedin has not returned from his concussion.  It's a small possibility, but it truly is a real possibility, and we don't know if Daniel Sedin has played his last NHL game or not.  

If he does come back, haven't we Keith rewarded for the work of the Vancouver training staff, or for Sedin's body chemistry and a powerful constitution?  We assume that Duncan Keith didn't end Daniel Sedin's career or, just as significantly, severely detract from his abilities upon his return to the ice.  I guess because it's "just a concussion", and that's significantly less meaningful than a "broken neck".  Of course, I'm sure Eric Lindros, Marc Savard, Paul Kariya, and Jeff Beukeboom would have something to say about that.

*     *     *     *
"Mr. Bertuzzi pursued Mr. Moore on the ice, attempting to engage him in a confrontation.  When Mr. Moore declined to engage Mr. Bertuzzi, Mr. Bertuzzi responded by delivering a gloved punch from behind to the side of Mr. Moore's head, rendering him unconscious.  Upon falling to the ice, Mr. Moore suffered additional serious injuries.  We want to make clear that this type of conduct will not be tolerated in the NHL."
- NHL Vice President Clarence Campbell, announcing Bertuzzi's suspension

So what exactly was "this type of conduct" that "will not be tolerated in the NHL"?  Premeditation in conjunction with an intent to injure?  Duncan Keith did that.  A career- or life-threatening injury?  Matt Cooke did that.  Does the injury have to be to a specific place, like the neck, instead of the head?  Shea Weber was pushing his luck on that one.  Maybe the conduct that Clarence Campbell meant was giving the NHL a black eye from a public relations standpoint?  

Or are we simply punishing for rolls of the dice, for simply having the misfortune to have been the one whose number came up, whose slot machine pull came back 7-7-7, and a sufficiently dramatic injury happened, leading to the end of someone's career?  

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