Some people pointed out that if it was a different repeat offender in Keith’s place, such as Raffi Torres, the suspension would have surely been for longer. It’s an interesting idea, but the two players are prone to very different offences. Comparing the two players, however, gives some insight into why Torres is vilified and why Keith still seems to have a sterling reputation.
I want to be very clear: I think Raffi Torres is fully deserving of the suspensions he has received and his subsequent reputation for reckless and dangerous hits.
With that said, Torres’s troublesome hits are more appropriately categorized as dumb and thoughtless than intentional or malicious. He has been suspended for hits that he would have been praised for in a different era. His flaw is that he hasn’t recognized the sea change and is still delivering the same hits again and again. Hitting in that way seems to be ingrained in him and, really, it is. Years of seeing players in vulnerable positions and launching his shoulder into them has made it a nearly-instinctual reaction.
This is a major problem, of course, and Torres is completely to blame for not addressing this element of his game appropriately and making the necessary changes, such as we’ve seen from Matt Cooke.
Keith, on the other hand, doesn’t have this tendency at all. In general, Keith isn’t a particularly dirty player, beyond the simple hacks and cross-checks that come hand-in-hand with playing defence. Keith is a phenomenal hockey player who works and battles hard and is a much smarter hockey player than Torres.
But Keith does have a tendency towards retaliation.
Don Cherry was quick to point out that Keith had reason to be upset with Carter, touching on it on Coach’s Corner. Just before getting Keith’s stick blade in his mouth, Carter brought down his stick across Keith’s glove, which happened to be lying on the ice at the time. Cherry argued that Carter actually slashed Keith’s bare hand, which can pretty easily cause broken bones. From the video, it looks plain as day that Carter hit only the glove, but in any case, it’s obvious that was the inciting incident that caused Keith’s retaliation.
Cherry, at least, made it clear that he wasn’t excusing Keith’s actions. Some Blackhawks fans certainly felt like it did.
There’s still something deep inside that wants eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. To some, Carter got what he deserved: if you attempt to slash a player on his bare hand, it’ll cost you a few teeth and 20 stitches. And it’s not the first time for Keith. His previous suspension that earned him his status as a repeat offender was his elbow to the head of Daniel Sedin.
That elbow was about as blatant and non-accidental as elbows get and plenty of Blackhawks fans agreed. They felt it was payback for an earlier hit to Keith’s head delivered by Sedin. As I’ve pointed out in the past, pointing out a previous incident doesn’t make a player innocent: instead, it provides motive, making it easier to prove he’s guilty.
When I looked at that incident last year, I brought up a previous time that Keith delivered a retaliatory headshot. Back in 2009, Matt Cooke caught Keith in a vulnerable position, spinning him around with a blindside check. With no penalty called on the play, Keith skated the length of the ice, spotted Cooke in the corner, and blindsided him with a hit to the head away from the puck.
This time around, Keith’s retaliation came in the form of a slash to the face instead of a hit to the head, but it turns out he has history with that infraction as well. On Sportscenter Wednesday night, Darren Dreger dredged up a very similar high stick on Vladimir Sobotka, again done in retaliation to a high hit that Keith didn’t like. Keith received neither a penalty nor a suspension for the play and Sobotka did not leave the game or miss any time due to injury, so the incident went largely unnoticed.
That’s just four incidents in an eight-season career, so it’s not like Keith is regularly taking aim at opponents’ heads, but there is a pattern. When Keith has been the target of what he feels is a dangerous play that could potentially significantly injure him, he sometimes retaliates with a shoulder, elbow, or stick to the head. He argued in his hearing with Brendan Shanahan that while he intentionally slashed Carter, he did not mean to hit him in the head. Does he get the benefit of the doubt considering his previous incidents?
Fortunately for Keith, that kind of thing is mostly forgiveable in the NHL. Hockey has a long history of excusing players (particularly star players) who have gone beyond the laws of the game to settle scores, send a message, or “protect” themselves. Gordie Howe’s elbows may as well be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Pavel Bure’s “mother of all elbows” on Shane Churla was seen as Bure sending a message to anyone who wanted to take a run at him. He got a fine, but no suspension.
Mark Messier, Owen Nolan, Billy Smith, Bobby Clarke, Ted Lindsay, and many, many more players throughout NHL history were known almost as much for their cheap shots and dirty play as they were for scoring goals or making saves. But Billy Smith was just protecting his crease. Bobby Clarke was doing whatever it took to win. Gordie Howe was earning respect and making space. They all had their reasons.
So someone like Keith, who gets upset at potentially dangerous hits and retaliates with intentional hits to the head with his shoulder or stick is carrying on a long tradition. But does that make it right? Should Keith be punished less severely for having a reason to cross the line or more severely for having clear intent?
Should Torres receive shorter suspensions for being thoughtless and reckless rather than malicious or should he receive longer suspensions in hopes that he’ll clue in and make changes to his game?
But if Torres is asked to make changes to his game, removing a certain type of hit from his repertoire, should not Keith be asked to do the same? A one-game suspension, even in the playoffs, seems paltry if it’s part of a larger pattern of behaviour. That pattern suggests that Keith will react the same way to similar situations in the future. Does a one-game suspension dissuade him from doing so?
It’s possible I’m overreacting. I still like Keith as a hockey player, but I find it concerning that his response to what he feels are dangerous plays seems to always be an even more dangerous one. Perhaps even more concerning is that people will defend his actions as necessary and justified.