On Wednesday, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety issued a one-game suspension to Duncan Keith for a slash to the face of Jeff Carter, which seems relatively fair. Shanahan’s description in the video had me expecting a longer suspension, to be honest: an intentional slash to the face by a repeat offender causing 20 stitches and dental work? That’s usually the recipe for a longer break from on-ice action.

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.

Comments (15)

  1. I’d be more concerned that Taylor Hall got NOTHING for his slash on Michalek. No penalty, no suspension. Keith got a 4 minute minor and a 1 playoff game suspension. The Dept of player safety is a joke.

    • In real life, no one and nothing is perfect. Yet we think the dept of player safety should be?

      lol.

      • perfect? no. Competent? yes….all I expect is mediocrity, and they can’t even ascend to that level of performance.

      • It’s not like they’re making split-second decisions like the referees. They have video they can slow down and analyze frame by frame. They get it wrong too often given the tools they have.

    • The Department of Player Safety has video upon video and time to make decisions so yes they should have the power to be perfect. They are not required to make spur of the moment decisions as refs do. They can view, think, view again, discuss and view again then decide. They need to be better and more consistent.

  2. Haha yes Matt Cooke made all the necessary changes. You must have missed his recent hit on McQuaid.

    • You mean the one that wasn’t HALF as hard as the hit by Regehr the next night? That got no major/misconduct or even a freaking penalty at all.

      Or the charging by Marchand on Neal later in that game.

      You may not like Matt Cooke, but if you think that hit was actually bad, you haven’t watched much hockey.

    • You mean the hit Cooke put on McQuaid where McQuaid completely saw Cooke coming and showed him the numbers anyways? That could have been a perfectly acceptable hockey hit but McQuaid put himself in a dangerous position. At any level in the sport the responsibility falls on the person being hit as much as it does the hitter to avoid potential injury.

  3. The two things i’m getting tired of hearing about in regards to player safety and supplemental discipline are “intent” and “extent of the injury”. I think both terms should be done away with if they want to start reaching some level of consistency. Keep the message clear. Hits to the head are unacceptable. Whether you meant to do it is inconsequential, and whether the guy you hit walks away with a broken tooth or a career ending concussion shouldn’t matter either. Just because a guy gets lucky enough to keep playing the sport shouldn’t allow the hitter to get off scott free.

  4. Big Chicago & Duncan Keith fan here. I think the suspension is reasonable for the offense and the history. I don’t think he got off light.

    This isnt’ the regular season. Losing Chicago’s top D man (arguably) for game four is pretty much equivalent to handing LA the game. This is why one game is sufficient, because losing in the playoffs hurts a hell of a lot more than just the lost pay.

    On the whole retaliation side of things, it’s frustrating how every video of the play cuts-in just as Carter’s stick comes down on Keith’s hand. This makes the retaliation look way out of place. If you see the whole play, Carter sees that Keith’s glove is off long before he slashes him. He then takes an indirect route up the ice and even has to jump over Keith’s ass to get a chance at slashing him on the hand. Taken in its full context, Keith’s reaction is much more understandable.

    Yes he shouldn’t have retaliated. Yes, he especially shouldn’t target his opponents’ head with his stick, that’s never okay, and hence the suspension. But quit acting like it came out of nowhere, and he’s some kind of villan. More than anything else he’s just a ‘D’ student from the school of cheaping people out and hurting them without receiving calls, while Carter just got himself an ‘A’.

    • I don’t understand this logic at all. The article goes through all of the times that he has retaliated on players when he feels slighted. Once he slashes Carter in the face should Carter get to stab him with a skate? Only he gets to take revenge into his own hands? Or should every team? Who gets first dibs on decapitating Bolland for all the cheap slashes he has given over the years.

      In what world is Keiths high stick worth less games than the suspension on Bouchard. Same play, they tried to slash someone in retaliation and accidently hit their head. Difference is that Bouchard has no history and Keith has a history of similar offences. This should have been a 2 game minimum (based on the precedent) + repeat offender extra games.

  5. Is it news to anyone that intentional violence in the NHL gets a pass? I don’t really have a horse in this race, aside from my desire to see competent officiating in the NHL. To my eye, it’s clear as day that Keith took a slash to an unprotected hand while trying to pick up his glove. Referee Eric Furlatt watches this happen, and makes no penalty call.

    What Duncan Keith did was undeniably wrong. He deserved his suspension, and it might even be a light suspension. What I don’t understand is how folks can look past Carter’s slash. What was Carter’s intent in slashing Keith in the hand? Was Carter trying to tickle Keith by slashing him in the hand? From the evidence presented in this article, it sounds like many of Keith’s severe offenses are a result of officials looking the other way on penalties that needed to be called. For years we’ve expected the players to police themselves. When the officiating continues to be sub-par, why would we expect that to change?

  6. I like keiths response and would have dine the same. If the ref isnt going to protect the star players, and you take liberties with one, then you shiuld expect an unpleasant response.

    • Keith didn’t even look to see if the ref’s hand went up. You call tapping someone’s glove on the ice “liberties”?? And the justified “unpleasant response” is a slash in the face and broken teeth?? You must the type of person that thinks if someone bumps into you in a crowded room it must mean that they intended to hurt you and wanted to pick a fight so it’s time to try to kill them.

      I also hate talk of protecting “star players”. Laws/rules must be enforced in a consistent and predictable manner, otherwise nobody knows how to follow them. Equal treatment for all is the only way. Btw, Carter could also be considered a “star player”, so Keith could have just as easily received a 10-game suspension by your logic.

  7. The whole point throughout all of this is quite simple really. The officiating in the playoffs is totally out of control as well. They let things go until someone gets hurt and then they want to come down hard on someone for doing so, In this light the players don’t know what is happening and when. When officials turn a blind eye to an elbow, then a slash, then a boarding, etc. they shown the players that anything goes. So then when retaliation enters into the picture the player is deemed to be wrong?? Why not fine and suspend the officials for not calling the games within the defines rules of it! That way no one gets hurt and the players are kept within those limitations of what is expected. In my eyes, the zebras need to be held accountable too same as the players. Hockey is so much more enjoyable watch because of the fast pace and the skill levels involved but it is also much better to watch when the games is called the way it is suppose to be not just letting it all go until someone gets hurt! The NHL needs to set the tone with the officials too and then everything will be the way it is expected and on equal footing for all involved!

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