I can hear it already…

I’m Brendan Shanahan of the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety. Wednesday night in Chicago, an incident occurred during a game between the Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks. At 13:36 of the first period, Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith delivered an elbow to the head of Vancouver forward Daniel Sedin. As the video shows…

The circumstances surrounding read like a suspension check list. Not only did Sedin not have the puck at the time of the hit, he never touched the puck and had no reason to expect a hit. The puck deflects off of the boards and bounces high over Sedin and Keith into the Chicago zone. Keith pays no attention to the puck and goes straight at Sedin. His elbow was fully extended at the time of the hit and only made contact with Sedin’s head, with no attempt at a full body check. The only thing that one could argue is that at least it wasn’t a blind side hit: the elbow hit Sedin directly in the front of the head, aka. the face.

Many will point out, however, that there are extenuating circumstances for Keith’s elbow, as it came shortly after he was hit in the head by none other than Daniel Sedin. Shortly after throwing a breakout pass up the boards, Keith was caught admiring his pass by Sedin, whose shoulder comes up and catches Keith on the chin. It will be up to Shanahan whether Sedin will also face supplementary discipline for his hit. It’s possible that he will decide the hit is similar to the full body checks that were deemed legal at the start of the season, though Sedin’s hit is a bit later than those examples.

Whether Sedin is suspended or not, Blackhawks fans eager for some Old Testament eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth will say that this is why Keith went after Sedin’s head.

Providing a reason for illegal actions doesn’t excuse those actions, however. Instead, it provides motive, which makes it easier to convict, rather than more difficult. Fans arguing that Keith was just getting retribution are actually condemning him as guilty. Wisely, Keith pled innocence both for himself and for Sedin.

Keith said after the game he didn’t know if Sedin landed a hard, high check on him prior to his elbow.

“No. I don’t think so,” Keith said. “I think on that play – and I haven’t seen the replay so it’s tough for me to comment too much on it – but I’m not trying to hurt anybody. I hope he’s OK. He’s one of their best players so he needs to be on the ice.

“The puck was up in the air from what I remember and I’m trying to close my gap and have a good gap on him. Right at the last second, he moves forward. I don’t know where the puck is. It’s fast. Like I said, I hope he’s OK. I need to see the replay. I need to see it again.”

None of this is too surprising. If he admits that he remembers getting hit by Daniel earlier in the period, it makes his own elbow look worse. Instead, he paints a picture of a hit that happened quickly and was unintentional. That’s key, as intent will likely play a large role in how long a suspension he receives.

Shane Doan received a three-game suspension for an elbow to the head just over an hour after Keith’s hit, and one of the parts that stood out for me was that Doan was judged to have “instinctively” extended his elbow, as he was caught between the puck and and the player. It seems that Keith is trying to give a similar explanation for his own elbow, saying that he was just closing the gap between himself and Sedin and reacted as Sedin moved forward “at the last second.”

Bill Smith, Getty Images

That explanation doesn’t match the visual record, however. Unlike Doan, Keith wasn’t beat on the play and didn’t seem to need to catch a piece of Sedin to prevent him from skating past. Instead, it appeared like there was every opportunity to throw a regular body check, though it still would have been interference. It doesn’t look like instinct; it looks like intent.

It’s difficult to say how many games Keith will receive as compared to Doan, as the two elbows are defined more by their differences than their similarities. While both players received only 2-minute minors, everything else is different. Sedin skated one shift after the hit before leaving the game, while Benn was not injured. Benn had just played the puck, while Sedin never touched it. Keith’s elbow was preceded by a previous incident between the two players, while Doan’s was empty of that type of context.

One of the considerations for Doan’s elbow was his status as a repeat offender, having previously been suspended for 3 games in 2010 and fined just 5 days ago. Keith, however, has no previous record. Indeed, I’ve generally thought of Keith as a pretty clean player. He does, however, have a very similar incident to his elbow on Sedin in his curriculum vitae.

Keith had a run-in with Matt Cooke back in 2009, when Cooke wasn’t the paragon of virtue that he is today. Early in the first period between the Blackhawks and Penguins on December 5th, Cooke blindsided Keith with a high hit that spun the defender to the ice. Not long after, Keith did likewise to Cooke and received a 2-minute interference minor as Cooke had not touched the puck.

Though clearly a blindside hit to the head, such hits were not as in-focus as they are now, and Keith received no subsequent discipline. Neither did Cooke, for that matter. So, while this incident does not give Keith “repeat offender” status, it does perhaps indicate that he is not above looking for revenge.

The bigger story here might be that Daniel Sedin, of all people, managed to hit Duncan Keith, who is one of the more slippery defencemen in the league. Neither of these players seem to be the type to throw high hits to the head, but a rivalry as heated as the one between the Blackhawks and Canucks brings out both the best and worst in these two teams.