The NHL's Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, confirmed Monday that Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos will be suspended three games for his hit from behind on Mike Van Ryn of the Toronto Maple Leafs during Saturday's game. There has been great debate on the issue... Should there have been a suspension at all? Is it time to send a message to the players with longer suspensions? Could Kostopoulos have let up when he saw Van Ryn put himself into a vulnerable position? Is Van Ryn equally to blame for turning at the last minute? The answer to all these questions, in my opinion, is yes.
Let's examine the hit first... I honestly didn't see the game live, but thanks to YouTube, I've reviewed the "hit" at least twenty times. The Toronto D-man appears to be heading behind the net with the puck, a quick glance over his right shoulder to see Kostopoulos barreling into the Leafs end like a Mack truck, Van Ryn attempts a change of direction - and is hit square in the numbers, sending him face first into the boards. Van Ryn suffered a concussion, a broken nose, a broken bone in his hand, and lacerations to the forehead. He'll be out of the lineup 4-6 weeks according to early reports from Leaf Land. Kostopoulos received a 5 minute major penalty, was ejected from the game, and is now serving his 3 game suspension.
Should Kostopoulos have been suspended? The answer is a definitive yes... Did he break any rules? The answer oddly enough, is no... A quick look at the NHL Rule Book on hits from behind: "Rule 44.1 - Checking from Behind - A check from behind is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body. When a player intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back, no penalty shall be assessed."
Somewhere over the years, the fourth line "grinder" has been replaced by the "energy" player. Professional agitators, who are given 4-5 minutes of ice time per game and told to hit anything that moves. When an "energy" guy takes a shift and doesn't lay a bone crushing hit, he may not see the ice for the rest of the period and/or game. Van Ryn had to know it was not Sakku Koivu coming down the ice towards him; at the very least, he knew someone was coming. One of the worst offenders of the energy players is his own teammate - Ryan Hollweg, already suspended repeatedly for hits from behind.
I'm sure my inbox is already filling with e-mails - "Well Voice, how do you suspend a player for the play that technically didn't even warrant a penalty?"... It's a question of respect. When you have an opposing player in your sights, is it necessary to obliterate him and leave half his face smeared on the glass? An opponent can be taken out of the play without putting him into the first row of spectators. Now that "hits" are a recorded statistic used in contract negotiations, the respect level has dropped among players. Just eliminating an opponent from the play, but not hitting him, could cost you money down the road. So why not level him?
As TSN's Pierre McGuire has stated repeatedly, and I used to think he was an alarmist; someone is going to die on the ice someday right before our eyes. We should all hope this never happens, but the NHL has an obligation to do more than just hope for the best. Besides the obvious trauma to the families involved, a league struggling to find its place in the American sports landscape and without a proper U.S. television contract, could find itself with no fans and enough lawsuits coming at them to bankrupt the league. The NHL can't say they were not warned, and a 1 or 2 game suspension does not demonstrate a serious attempt at changing the level of respect that appears to be lacking at this time.
Personally, watching the video footage of the Van Ryn hit, one thing in particular kept catching my eye, time after time. In the ensuing scrum that followed the hit, as Leaf players tried to get hold of Kostopoulos to defend their fallen teammate, nuclear deterrent, Georges Laraque was on the ice for Montreal - and he did not get involved. Instead, he stood to the side, looking down at Van Ryn and the Leafs trainer, with obvious concern on his face. He was in the scrum for a second or two, but decided to turn his attention to the fallen Van Ryn, and his gloves stayed on.
Last night, while watching the Habs versus the Senators, Ottawa's Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu attempted several times to taunt Habs D-man Mike Komisarek into fighting. Each time, Big Georges, the nuclear bomb, only had to skate into the conversation and the Ottawa players moved along... If the reigning Heavyweight Champ of the NHL knows when to pick the appropriate time to lay out an opponent, why can't the fourth line "energy" guys get the message? Have a great sports day everyone.