Towards the end of last night's Rangers victory, Evgeny Malkin "slew footed" Paul Mara of the Rangers (for anyone who doesn't know, "slew footing" is where one player kicks the feet out from behind and under another player which is often- but not always- done while simultaneously pulling the victimized player backwards to the ice). Fortunately for Mara the play did not result in an injury to the Rangers defenseman. Pursuant to NHL Rules, "Slew Footing" is an automatic match penalty. Not surprisingly, given the sorry state of officiating in the NHL, no penalty was called on the play.
The question is, should the NHL do something about the incident? This morning I heard fans calling in to one of the local sports talk radio shows in order to discuss the subject. Some folks fealt that a suspension was warranted as "slew footing" is an inherently dirty and dangerous play and, therefore, has no place in hockey. Other folks fealt that since there was no injury there should be no supplemental discipline. Virtually everyone agreed that since a superstar like Malkin commited the act, there would be no reprecussions (that in and of itself is a topic for another day!). To me it's a no-brainer:
The NHL rule book does not give a referee any discretion in this matter: slew-footing is an automatic match penalty. Period. It also results in a player being ineligible to play until the NHL reviews the incident to determine whether or not a suspension is warranted. Therefore, at the very least, the NHL should review the play. The fact that the refs missed the call does not mean that the incident did not occur.
Now we get to the juicy stuff! Assuming the NHL reviews the play (and by the way, if a guy like Avery or Hollweg commited this act there is no doubt that the play would be reviewed), should they suspend Malkin?
First, Malkin should be suspended. There is absolutely no place in the NHL for a play like that. The fact is that dangerous incidents are par for the course in hockey. That's what happens when you play a high speed and high impact game. However, most of the dangerous plays that occur in the course of a game are unintentional and incidental to otherwise legal contact. For example, two players collide, one of them inadvertently looses control of his stick which gets raised too high and dangerously hits another player in the face. Is this a penalty? Definitely. Is it worthy of suspension? Absolutely not. How about this one: Player A goes into the offensive zone hard on the forecheck. He lines up Player B for a body check. At the last instant, Player B turns his body so that Player B ends up getting hit from behind into the boards. Penalty? Probably. Worthy of suspension? Not if Player A had no chance of avoiding what would otherwise have been a clean hit. How about this one: 6'7' Hal Gill goes to take the body on 5'7' Marc Savard who is hunched over playing the puck with his head down. Because of their massive size difference, Gill's elbow unintentionally ends up in Savard's ear. Penalty? Possibly. Worthy of suspension? No.
What do these three common examples have in common? (1) they all involve contact that is ultimately "illegal" yet the contact stems from otherwise legal actions which routinely occur in the course of a hockey game; and (2) there is clearly no intent to injure.
Contrast that with "slew footing". (1) Slew footing is not a play that in any way shape or form arises out of or is incidental to normal, ordinary, routine or expected contact in the course of a hockey game; and (2) the very nature of this deliberate action evidences an intent to injure or (at the very least) an unacceptable and reckless disregard for the safety of another player.
Based on that, Malkin should be suspended.
What about the "no harm no foul" theory? After all, Mara wasn't injured why should Malkin be suspended? First, I don't think that injuries or the lack thereof should play any factor in determining whether or not to suspend a player. Certain conduct is unacceptable and players must know that if they perpetrate those unnacceptable acts they will be punished. Without a clear rule, players will continue committing dangerous acts which will one day lead to serious injuries.
However, I don't discount the "no harm no foul" theory all togther. I think that the injuries or the lack thereof should absolutely be considered in determining the length of a suspension and/or the fine imposed. As a lawyer I'm borrowing this theory from our legal system: When a plaintiff sues a defendant, in very general terms there are two aspects to the lawsuit: the first is liability the second is damages. In english that means that first we have to determine if the defendant did anything wrong. If he did, then we decide what his punishment is. If the defendant did nothing wrong, the case is over.
So let's assume the defendant did do something wrong (i.e. he is liable to the plaintiff). Now we have to figure out the damages (i.e what's the right punishment). How do we decide? We look at the damages suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the defendant's wrongful conduct and we tell the defendant to pay back that damage. Sometimes, you can have a defendant who did something wrong but no damage resulted therefrom. That defendant is still found liable, but he's only required to pay a small "symbolic" amount to the plaintiff since after all, the plaintiff's rights were trampled.
But then there's another measure of damages. It's called punitive damages (from the same word as punish). Sometimes a defendant does something unacceptable that shocks the conscience of society and must be punished for it even beyond the damage that his actions caused to the plaintiff. One of the theories behind punitive damages is deterrence: we want people to know that certain conduct is not acceptable and if anyone engages in that conduct they will be punished beyond the direct consequences of their actions.
That's the Malkin slew foot case. Thankfully, Paul Mara was not injured. Nonetheless, there's no room for that kind of nonesense in the NHL. Instead of worrying about the "Avery Rule" the NHL should be worrying about real and potentially dangerous infractions.
I say let Malkin sit out game 5. Discuss amongst yourselves!