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NHL Suspension Puzzle: Zdeno Chara is a star, Michael Grabner is an Islander

Two headshots: Two completely different rulings. (Er, one ruling. One have a nice day.)

Two illegal checks, one injury, one suspension.
Two illegal checks, one injury, one suspension.
Bruce Bennett

"You don't know what you're doing."

-Common soccer chant, when a referee, player or manager's mistake is on full display for all to see.

It feels like every other night in the NHL there is a vicious hit or a scary headshot, or at least cause for yet another article to begin, "It feels like every other night in the NHL..."  Each time leads to fan frustration and a published article over a pending suspension or lack thereof. Yes, this is one of those. Sorry.

Most are frankly tired of talking about it, tired of writing about it. But there's a worthy goal in what the league is doing, and why media occasionally try to hold them to account: You hope the players adjust, start treating each other more carefully, aided by the direction from an increasingly vigilant discipline from the NHL, resulting in a safer game, longer careers, and happier coherent retirements.

You also hope that the league's crackdown comes with rhyme and reason: They don't want any tolerance for hits that target the head, and they're serious about it.

Then you get this past week and you wonder how the league can undo each progressive step forward.

As New York Islanders fans know, winger Michael Grabner was suspended for a classic head shot after he came on the backcheck and hit 5'5" Carolina forward Nathan Gerbe in the head. Though an Isles fan, I didn't have a problem with Grabner being disciplined and said so at the time. I figured he would get a fine as a first-time offender, but the NHL gave him two games. Great. They're increasingly serious about this issue. More power to them. Lesson for all of us.

Or not.

Thursday night in Boston, Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara hit Sharks forward Tommy Wingels in the head, well after Wingels had passed the puck. (Wingels' teammate, Tomas Hertl, already has the puck behind the net and is looking to make a pass when Chara, ahem, continues his path to Wingles and "finishes" his check.)

Wingels left the game with an injury:

Grabner, a first-time offender, had a telephone hearing the day after his hit on Gerbe and was suspended two games. Chara received no hearing at all. He's a free man, at liberty to strike again.


You can watch the NHL explanation for the Grabner suspension here. It's incredibly brief and boils down to three points they weighed when deciding to suspend first-timer Grabner for two games.

  • This was an illegal check to the head.
  • Gerbe remained in the game and suffered no injury.
  • Grabner has no discipline history.

Note that one of the NHL's three points incriminates Grabner, the others point to why they would treat him leniently.

Now let's play Shanahan and compare that to what Chara did to Wingels:

  • This was an illegal check to the head. (It was also late and unnecessary. Wingels had already passed the puck. Chara had no need to continue toward Wingels, but he did, and worse, he hit him high. In contrast, Grabner checked a man as he was shooting.)
  • Wingels left the game due to injury on the play.
  • Chara has, well, not exactly a discipline history. He was suspended in 2005 for a fight as a Senator. Everything he's done since then has kept his record remarkably clean, although fans of his victims' teams can produce gif after gif of Chara behaving badly. It's as if his own extreme height and curiously clean record insulates him.

As Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun noted in 2011 after Chara's controversial driving of Max Pacioretty into the stanchion went unpunished (emphasis mine):

"What are you doing to do the next time Trevor Gillies comes down and runs a guy into the thing? You can't give him anything. And you tell the guys [Chara] has no history, so the next time he does it he still has no history because he didn't get suspended."

Grabner has no history. Chara "has no history." Grabner checked a puck carrier in the head during the act of shooting, and that player is uninjured. Chara smashed his arms into the head of a guy who didn't have the puck, and that player was injured. (Thankfully, Wingels felt better a few days later and was able to play Saturday night in Montreal)

I didn't raise a fuss when Grabner was suspended. I fully support the NHL cracking down aggressively on such hits, particularly avoidable hits, that cause concussions and shorten careers.

It's a fast game and given his history Grabner probably went in with legal intentions, but the burden on an NHL player is to be able to avoid illegal results. They can do magical things with their hands at today's high speeds, they should do magical things with their bodies at those speeds too.

And while Gerbe is tiny and thus easier to accidentally hit in the head, height shouldn't matter ... right?

It seems Chara, like Chris Pronger before him, sometimes gets the benefit of the doubt on high hits because they are so tall. (Don't get me wrong: Pronger still had his share of suspensions. He also could have had a lot more.) That's at least one of the rationales tossed around as people try to figure out why the NHL thought it was okay for Chara to check someone in the head here.

But it doesn't add up. Whether it was height, ignorance, tailoring to stars, or who knows what, the NHL has dropped the ball.

Sean Gentille of The Sporting News gamely tries to sort out the Chara rationale (no reference to Grabner, and emphasis mine):

Another thing to remember, particularly regarding Chara—it is indeed possible to violate Rule 48, which governs head shots and not be suspended. Theoretically, a player can hit an opponent's head deliberately without it rising to a suspendable offense in the eyes of the league. Intent, force, result—all are factors in the review process. Whether a player was or was not penalized in the game is not.

...but even there, it simply underlines the mind-boggling contrast between how the league treated Grabner, whose victim was unharmed and was part of a play on the puck carrier, and Chara, whose victim was hurt and should no longer have been a target when Chara checked him.

What's the point in doling out suspensions if they are going to overlook an obviously late and unnecessarily high hit? What's the point of a paying fan giving them the benefit of the doubt when their only consistency is maddening inconsistency?

The NHL's task is an arduous one, made more difficult by the fury of 30 GMs, the unending stupidity of certain players, and the non-stop flow of critical articles like this one.

I think the player safety office's task is an arduous one, made more difficult by the fury of 30 GMs, the unending stupidity of certain players, and the non-stop flow of critical articles like this one. The carefully detailed videos from the NHL explaining their rulings have been a breath of fresh air.

But as a writer with some audience and an interest in the good of the game, what's the point in taking the high road and endorsing suspensions like Grabner's when the league has shown it will look the other way on a different -- and late -- check to the head that actually causes an injury?

As someone who writes primarily for Islanders fans, I spend a lot of time actually trying to provide a broader beyond-the-Isles perspective, explain that the league isn't out to get them, there are no conspiracies or institutionalized biases, that the league's actions are well-meaning and intended to produce a greater good.

You can call it conspiracy, you can call it star treatment or market bias. I'm generally skeptical of any of those somewhat paranoid rationales. But then you have this sequence of events, you struggle for an explanation, and the worst possibility of them all haunts you: What if they don't know what they're doing?

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