Giroux vs. Zebraman

It didn’t look like much. At full speed, Claude Giroux’s shoulder barely looks like it made contact with Zubrus’s face, and if the larger man hadn’t collapsed in the characteristic heap immediately after, one might be forgiven for thinking that Giroux had missed his check entirely. Slow it down, though, and it looks as much like intent as a hit to the head possibly can. Of all the dubious hits in all the postseason, only the Weber Grab was more obviously deliberate.

Giroux will probably get suspended. Maybe not, because he’s a star. Maybe not, because the Flyers are going into an elimination game. Maybe not, because he has no priors and his own concussion problems make him a sympathetic protagonist. But probably. It’s the climate of these playoffs; there are suspensions in the air and the wind is against him.

But what is interesting about the Giroux hit, for once, is not the possible suspension. It’s the penalty.  While Shanahan has faced intense scrutiny over his decisions on every single head hit, the on-ice officials have been slowly but clearly ramping up their own punishments for charging, elbowing, roughing, and interference.  Once upon a time the non-call on the Torres play would have been typical.  But increasingly, in this postseason, it’s the exception.  Most of the players who’ve taken it too far- Hagelin, Carkner, Neil, Asham, Ovechkin- have gone to the box.  That’s a step in the right direction.  Now there need to be two or three steps more.

In all the furor over supplementary discipline in hockey these days, there hasn’t been too much conversation about the role of regular discipline in preventing and punishing headshots. People will talk about the suspension customs of other sports- basketball, rugby- as a model for the NHL rather than actually talk about the ways hockey’s indigenous system of discipline can be used to change behavior. That’s a shame, because hockey’s system of discipline is a remarkable thing, and when used the right way, it can be a very effective one.

Unique among all major North American sports, hockey makes misbehavior into a system of exchange. In other sports, punishment is very Judeo-Christian, some great figure in the league above and apart from the game coming down with furious anger on players who break his commandments. Hockey punishments are more like karma: do wrong if you will, but know that your wrongs will be visited back upon you and yours, and not on some future day of judgment but here and now, in this game that you are still hoping to win. It is an elegant solution to the problems of a sport that is fast and rough and difficult to draw clear lines through, and- like certain Chinese deities- hockey officials have evolved to view their role not so much as punishing all things harshly but rather maintaining the balance of the game. Ask any ref, they will tell you that their job is not about calling everything but about calling the necessary things to keep the match fair and the emotions in check. An explosion of violence like the one that happened in game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series does not represent a failure of NHL supplementary discipline but rather a failure of on-ice officiating.

The system does break down. It doesn’t catch everything. But most of the time it works. The old Slapshot joke about going to the box and feeling shame gets bandied about because we assume most players don’t actually care about taking penalties, but they do, and coaches do even more. Except for the rare cases of the penalty one ‘needs to take’, like holding or tripping an opponent with a chance for a breakaway, most penalties are a clear disadvantage for the team. ‘Staying out of the box’ is a major goal for any coach in any important game.

The problem is that up until now hits to the head have not been a major cause of going to the box. It’s not a problem with the rules, it’s a problem with the culture. Hockey officiating is extremely cultural, more so perhaps even than playing. The book gives the refs vast latitude to call a huge range of penalties and to allocate a wide scale of punishments, but most of it isn’t used. I once asked an amateur ref of my acquaintance- trained but not professional- what percentage of technically penalizable offenses in a hockey game were actually called, and he figured 30-40%. That seems about right to me. Every game includes at least a dozen small trips, holds, interferences, roughs, and slashes that meet the extremely vague criteria set down on paper for a penalty. If the officials called everything, it’d take five hours to finish the thing and there’d be hardly any even-strength play to speak of. So refs apply a culturally customary standard of strategic ignoring, to keep the pace of the game up while still catching the most egregious offenses.

Unfortunately, for most refs it seems like the standards of hitting are still on the wrong side of this cultural boundary. Most of them, I expect, got their training and learned their standards in a time (like, oh, five years ago) when huge, leaping, just-finishing-my-check knockouts were universally considered AWESOME rather than abhorrent. It seems like a lot of them still look at the game that way. It’s not that they don’t see the headshots, it’s that when they do, they mentally categorize it the same way Raffi Torres does: hockey play gone wrong, ugly consequences but that’s the game.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The NHL has forced changes in the culture of officiating before, most recently in the crackdown on restraining fouls after the lockout. They could do it again. Most dangerously high hits are not so hard to see. Even if the actual head contact is nearly invisible, as in Giroux’s case, there is a distinct profile to the average headshot. They’re often late, and so could be called interference. They often involve a bit of a jump, and so could be called charging. Unlike the headshot rule, both charging and interference carry the possibility of drawing not only a minor penalty, but a major penalty and even a match penalty or game misconduct for particularly violent and intentional offenses. The rules are already in place for the refs to put a team down a man for five minutes over an egregious (late, leaping) headshot. They’re in place such that Giroux could have been ejected from the game under a stronger standard of enforcement. How fast would it change a coach’s calculation of the value of Torres ‘finishing his check’, if he had a reasonable expectation that the way Torres finishes a check might give the opposition of five-minute power play?

Supplementary discipline will still be necessary sometimes. In this climate, when hockey is trying to change its entire standard of hitting, it will be especially necessary for a while. But over the long run, the goal should be to integrate the prevention of headshots and dangerous near-headshots into the fabric of the game on the ice. We do not want to institute a clumsy, top-heavy system that relies primarily on ex post facto review of anything and everything.  We want the dangerous plays to be caught as much as possible then and there. Supplementary discipline, no matter how consistent, will always be a maybe thing, somewhere in the future, and as such there will always be players and coaches who don’t give it due consideration in the heat of a game, when they’re focused close on winning. A stricter standard of on-ice officiating brings that discipline into the game; it puts it directly into the calculus of winning and losing. It creates a tangible, necessary reason for coaches to exercise a restraining influence on their players and for GMs to consider not employing players with a history of illegal hits- because that history of illegal hits suddenly becomes a history of making stupid decisions that hurt the team. A hockey man can forgive a hundred ‘accidental’ headshots far more readily than a dozen unnecessary O-zone penalties.

The essential thing about the Giroux hit is not that it was dirty and it’s not how many games their going to give him. It’s that the officials caught it, and they caught it not because they saw the head contact but because they saw the other things- the interference and the charging- that are characteristic of illegal headshots. Given that his prior and subsequent behavior gave every indication that the play, in addition to being illegal, was also intentional and potentially injurious, they would have been within the rules to ‘suspend’ him then and there, for the rest of that game. No new policies required; just a little cultural shift.

Addendum:  The very fine blog Driving Play took a look at the rates of in-game penalties for suspended hits in the regular season two weeks ago.  Check it out.