Photo via Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo
Ice hockey is one of the most physical sports in the world. With grown men skating around the rink at speeds in excess of 20 miles per hour, hitting, checking and boarding are common occurrences.
The question, though, is where the line is drawn between what is too excessive and what is normal regarding these physical confrontations. Dealing with excessive hits through fines and punishments has been an ageless debate in the NHL, and that has not changed.
Take the scenario involving St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo.
During the first period of Saturday’s game against the Nashville Predators, the Blues were shorthanded. With the Predators attempting to score, a scrum ensued in the crease of the net, with both teams attempting to retrieve the puck. Bortuzzo then cross-checked Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson into the net, with Arvidsson getting clotheslined by the top post in the process. Bortuzzo expressed frustration when the referee blew the whistle on the foul, and in his frustration cross-checked Arvidsson again when he was trying to get up.
Both cross-checks were dirty. To start, Arvidsson was not involved in the crowd of bodies fighting for the puck. The initial scrum for control of the puck took place on the right side of the crease, whereas Arvidsson was on the left side, positioned to potentially tip-in the shot should the puck come out of the pile. Bortuzzo skated in from the left circle knowing Arvidsson was in front of him and cross-checked him anyway. In frustration of getting a whistle, he pushed Arvidsson down again.
The argument of which check was dirtier has been and will continue to be debated.
Therein lies the problem, though.
The debate should not be on the dirtiness of the play. The bigger debate should be about the suspension Bortuzzo received.
That is if you want to call it that. The penalty for Bortuzzo was only four games. In fact, that penalty was an “upgrade” from the initial ruling of a fine.
Never mind the fact that Bortuzzo has been a repeat offender with plays regarding this, whether it be from cross-checking Brock Nelson of the New York Islanders in 2017 or elbowing Michal Kempny of the Washington Capitals in 2018 during the preseason. Never mind the fact that despite never playing a full season he has still racked up the penalty minutes, including 93 in only 51 games played during the 2014-2015 season. Never mind the fact Arvidsson will miss an estimated four to six weeks from injuries sustained in the incident.
Despite Nashville players calling the hit “vicious,” the history of Bortuzzo and the possible consequences this has on the Predators offense moving forward, the best the NHL could come up with was four games and the salary forfeited during those four games, which comes out to a scratch below $70,000.
The outrage over this “slap on the wrist” punishment should have fans up in arms.
Moving forward, though, more severe ramifications could result from this.
If this is the new norm for the NHL in regards to dealing with incidents like this, then what will stop other players on other teams from doing a similar hit? If the punishment is “only” four games, what is the incentive to not do hits of this magnitude? If the depth of the team is deep, a player missing what amounts to 5 percent of the season will not derail them. What will stop teams from imposing a more harmful way of defensive hockey?
On the other side of the coin, if a hit like this does happen and a player receives a more severe suspension, what will stop the player from heavily appealing the punishment on the basis of Bortuzzo getting less?
Moving forward, the NHL could find themselves in a severe predicament in dealing with punishments like this. Do you double down, or do you try to correct a wrong and impose more severe penalties with the possibility of more appeals taking place?
The Bortuzzo incident was dirty. But the dirt on that play could be nothing compared to what the NHL will have to deal with on how to hand out punishments like this moving forward. No matter what direction they go now, there will be an outcry.
A line in the sand has been drawn, and the NHL will have to deal with it.