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Afterwords: When Safety Comes Second

Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

Let’s start with a statement that should be a universal truth: the Matt Dumba hit on Joe Pavelski was late.

Joe Pavelski had already gotten rid of the puck – it was nowhere near him at the time. Granted, in this situation, Pavelski was still in a position where he could be legally hit. Namely, if Dumba was in the process of finishing his check, the logic being that he wouldn’t have had enough time to stop his hit within the second that Pavelski passed the puck.

So then the question becomes, had Dumba already started his check? Replay shows no:

Dumba is already skating towards Pavelski as part of defending the play. Perhaps, at this point in time, he has already decided he’s going to hit Pavelski. But it’s not until after (or, at best, the moment that) Pavelski gets rid of the puck that Dumba lifts his stick, squats, and begins to deliver his check.

Yes, the game moves fast, but these players react within half a second to puck, stick, and skate movements all the time. Dumba is an experienced player, well attuned to the fast-paced nature of NHL hockey. He makes split second adjustments all the time, and he should have been able to do so here as well.

You want to argue if the play was dirty or not? Sure. You think that because it was shoulder to shoulder, the contact itself was fine? We can have that discussion. But at the end of the day, this is a textbook late hit.

The Department of Player Safety disagrees:

Now, to be clear, there was no way Dumba was getting suspended on this play. I’m not even surprised there wasn’t a hearing. Not because of the hit itself, but because of the eventual call on the ice – at the end of the day, the penalty was downgraded from a five minor major to a two minute minor for roughing. Whether you think the call was right or wrong, there was no way the DPoS was going to rule that a hit downgraded from a major was, in fact, worthy of a suspension. It would lose the NHL and its referees too much face.

And therein lies the problem with NHL hockey: player safety always seems to come second to the product on the ice.

This is a league whose commissioner has gone years refusing to acknowledge the undeniable link between CTE and concussions. A league where the DPoS is led by George Parros, a player who spent his career racking up penalties and delivering brutal hits. A league where many fans bemoan the lack of fighting these days, because hockey is just “that kind of sport.”

Take, for instance, the comments made by ESPN analysts on the hit. Both P.K. Subban and Chris Chelios are Norris-winning defenseman who have delivered more than their fair share of questionable hits. They’ve also been on the receiving end of many such hits. To quote:

“He just wasn’t expecting the hit — and it’s playoff hockey,” Chelios said.

Or as Subban put it: “That’s Dumba’s job — you gotta finish hits. You gotta play the game physically. I did it my whole career, especially in the playoffs. Anybody coming across the blue line, you want to make body contact — cleanly. But you want to impose your will.”

Again, I’m not sure how you can claim Dumba was “finishing his check.” But that’s not the worrying part here – it’s the view that not only is this normal, but that’s how it should be. Because this is the playoffs, baby, and you should be ready to get sent flying off the ice because you dared possesses the puck.

It’s not as if this attitude is limited to big hits like Dumba’s either. Take for instance these pair of crosschecks by Ryan Suter:

Neither of those hits were called a penalty, and honestly, is anyone surprised? This is the type of play that is encouraged in playoff hockey. The gritty, “impose your will” style where players slam into each other non-stop for 60+ minutes and every team starts racking up the injuries, including that one guy who somehow won the Conn Smythe while playing with a broken femur.

And not only is it encouraged, it’s celebrated! At the game last night, I can’t tell you how many fans were arguing how, after the Dumba hit, the Dallas Stars needed to return the favor – if the Minnesota Wild took out one of their top forwards, they had to do the same and take out Kirill Kaprizov.

Now, notice the player Suter is cross-checking in both instances? That’s right: Kaprizov. If I recall correctly, after that second one, which was in the final minutes of regulation, Kaprizov was slow to get up and went to the bench clutching his hand. And I’ll bet there are non-insignificant number of Stars fans out there happy about that, even upset that he wasn’t hurt more. Big ol’ yikes if you were.

As a whole, however, the Stars didn’t escalate. Yes, Max Domi jumped Dumba after the hit, but that is (right or wrong) to be expected from certain players after they see their teammate lying on the ice, not moving after their head slammed down on it. And Domi was appropriately given a minor and a 10-minute misconduct. But after that, there were no massive, retaliatory hits to ‘even the score.’ Dumba didn’t get jumped again or dragged into a fight once he left the peanlty box, or at any point throughout the evening – the most he got was constant boos from the crowd every time he touched the puck.

In that regard, Stars coach Pete DeBoer deserves all the credit for keeping the game from spiraling into a bloodbath. I’ll bet you anything that as the referees were reviewing the hit, DeBoer was talking his team down, warning them not to do anything stupid and get penalized if not ejected. Then, when asked about the lack of a major penalty after the game, he had this to say:

“We have the best officials in the world,” DeBoer said. “They called a five, they reviewed it, which is the right thing to do. If they reviewed it and they decided it wasn’t a bad hit, then I guess it’s not for me to argue with that. They got to look at it at multiple different angles and that’s the decision they made.”

Now, based on the careful language he used, I’d say DeBoer almost certainly did not agree with the call, unlike coach Dean Evason and the Wild. But he didn’t vocalize that. He didn’t trash the referees, or say he hoped DoPS would weigh in, or tell the world that Minnesota should watch their backs. He simply moved on, and instead focused on how Pavelski was doing.

Which, at the end of the day, is what is most important here. Concussions are a scary thing, and this wouldn’t be the first for Pavelski. DeBoer told reporters that Pavelski was able to walk out of the rink on his own, although he’s not confident about a Game 2 return. But that’s okay – rather than rush him back to the ice in the quest for a Stanley Cup, Joe Pavelski’s well-being should be the highest priority.

But while it may be so for the Stars, it’s not for the NHL. As Saad Yousuf masterfully captured in his piece well worth your time, if that Dumba hit wasn’t illegal, it should have been. I’d go one step further and argue that even if it was downgraded from a major, the DPoS still should have stepped in and made an example out of Dumba, even if it was only for a single game. The NHL should have said that a late, high hit in which a player lifted off the ice and sent the other up into the air and crashing down, giving them a concussion in the process, is not okay, no matter the point of contact.

But they didn’t, to no one’s surprise. And we’ll certainly see more hits like this throughout this year’s playoffs, to no one’s surprise. And we’ll see analysts and fans shrug their shoulders if not actively cheer it on because “that’s playoff hockey,  baby,” to no one’s surprise.

Because the NHL puts player safety second, sadly, to no one’s surprise.