By now, we’ve all seen it. On Monday evening, during the Thrashers/Panthers game, Ilya Kovalchuk picked up a loose rebound and knocked it into the net. Out of frustration, Florida defenseman Keith Ballard swung his stick, intending to break it over the net, but he instead clipped teammate Tomas Vokoun in the head:
I’ve never seen anything like this before (though others have cited a similar incident in the World Championships with Team Slovakia players Tomas Surovy and Jaroslav Halak), and as a former goalie I flinch every time I watch it. However, when showing my uncle, who made me a hockey fan, this video, he had an interesting reaction: he wondered whether Ballard deserved suspension by the NHL. His rationale is that a player is responsible for his stick, and the lack of intent should not excuse his actions.
This sounded like an interesting debate, and we did just that this afternoon. I had the pleasure of discussing this with an esteemed panel of 4 bloggers: Su Ring of KING 5 in Seattle and Hockey Independent, Tony Stabile of Hockey Independent, Anthony Curatolo of Crash the Crease and The Hockey Guys, and Buddy Oakes of the excellent Preds on the Glass web site and radio show.
It was not quite the Simpsons‘ jury of the damned – which included the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers – but we had a fun conversation. Thanks to Su, Tony, Anthony, and Buddy for their time – and thanks to Google Wave for providing a fun new platform for us to have the conversation.
First, check out these two videos, courtesy of Adrian Dater of the Denver Post, in which Vokoun and Ballard discuss the incident:
Nick: Thanks everyone for participating. The idea for this kind of a chat came about when I sent my uncle, who hadn’t seen it yet, a video of the Ballard/Vokoun incident, and he asked me a question that I hadn’t thought of: should the NHL suspend Ballard for what he did?
Buddy: I don’t know exactly what the rules are on internal discipline. I’m sure league rules would apply but it is rare that a teammate is involved
Nick: That’s what makes this so bizarre
Su: I watched and watched again. I don’t know if it’s an NHL thing, but I definitely think the team should impose some type of punishment. Accident or not, that was a dangerous thing to happen.
Tony: Unfortunately I don’t think the NHL has any rules about being an idiot, though I do believe they should step in on this one. They have been discussing hits to the head, and this is an easy one to make an example out of.
Buddy: The last time I saw someone take a full swing at another player was Mike Modano hitting Jordin Tootoo with his stick after Tootoo sucker punced Robidas a few years back. Nothing was accessed againstModano and he set the US record for goals later in the game. It was a full double standard for star players issue.
Nick: Right, I remember that game, Buddy – and you contrast that to Chris Simon chopping at Ryan Hollweg 2 years ago, and how swiftly and severely he was punished (and rightfully so).
Tony: True, Nick, but the reason they came down so quickly was the intent Simon had. Ballard was just careless, and I guess in the NHL’s eyes there’s a difference.
Su: That makes it hard to level any kind of punishment here because this was obviously an accident and done out of extreme frustration. But it DOES seem to come under the heading of unsportsmanlike conduct.
Nick: Yes, exactly….I can’t get past one simple fact. Ballard didn’t intend to injure anyone, the contact was not intentional, but he 100% intended to swing the stick. That to me takes it to a new level, when you consider the tried-and-true explanations that you are responsible for your stick. If an accidental high-stick is a penalty, part of me thinks the same standard applies here.
Buddy: If you compare it to a kids’ league, the player would be suspended without question.
Su: I agree, Buddy. And I do think the team should level a punishment – suspension, fine, both. I mean, Ballard did injure Vokoun. I definitely think the team has to set a standard here.
Anthony: I think that Ballard needs to seriously figure out a way to win his team back, whether it’s via media by sticking up for the team and talking more for them, and callig himself out. Should the team honestly suspend him for his actions – that is the biggest question here, no?
Tony: To me the big question I have is this: Should the Panthers level some kind of discipline?
Nick: I’m not sure, Tony – what’s your take?
Tony: I absolutely would. If i’m the Panthers GM and I just watched my defenseman nearly decapitate my starting goaltender and possible prime trading chip at the deadline, for something that stupid, I would be livid. Also, the players themselves, you would like to think, would be pretty upset as well.
Buddy: There’s a discussion on XM right now about it and they are making a big deal about how bad Ballard felt and that Vokoun is in good spirits, so it appears that all they are taking from it is that “someone will learn a lesson”.
Nick: Well, OK….Ryan Hollweg walked away from Simon two-handing him. Does that mean Simon shouldn’t have been suspended? I see that perspective but have trouble agreeing with it
Tony: Agreed. Ovechkin kneed Tim Gleason the other night – Gleason kept playing and Ovechkin is out of the lineup. He still was suspended, though.
Su: If Ballard feels so bad about it, he should have no problem coughing up a fine or sitting out a game to demonstrate his remorse.
Anthony: Maybe a game in the pressbox, Su, sure, but I mean, the damage is one, and I’m sure Ballard feels like garbage about it. How much do you think this affects him amongst teammates as well as his on-ice play? I think this is much bigger then it is seriously playing out ot be
Buddy: It looks like the league is leaving it up to the team and the bottom line is that the team is struggling and they don’t want to sit Ballard. [Ballard and Vokoun] sat beside each other on the plane after the game and made up.
Nick: Interesting – and I see why they would do that. Do we think there comes a point when internal team matters become the league’s problem? I mean we’ll always have instances like when Pronger called out Mike Richards – but this goes beyond that or 2 teammates fighting in practice.
Su: I think it sends the wrong message to let him get away with an “I’m sorry” and a sheepish chuckle. Whether the team is struggling or not, what kind of message does it send to other players who feel just as frustrated as Ballard?
Tony: Definitely, Nick. When a defenseman chops a goalie’s head off I guess that is the cutoff….no pun intended…
Buddy: When I deal with my kids on something serious I expect them to be sorry but I still dish out punishment. One time my older son popped a skateboard up when my younger son was leaning ober to pick it up and it split his forehead open and blood when everywhere. The older son had been dealt with with a spanking before the younger was attended to. Almost the exact same type incident.
Nick: That makes sense – the fact that he is sorry doesn’t mean that he didn’t do something worthy of punishment.
Anthony: Punishment from the team, sure, [but not] the league. This should be out of NHL’s hands.
Tony: In all honesty though, we’re expecting the League to do the right thing here. They can’t even discipline players correctly for offenses that are actually in the book, let alone these grey area types
Anthony: But how can the league punish a team and player when there was no intent and a mistake was made? The only punishment to hand out needs to come from the Panthers, and if Ballard and Vokoun made up, then that is settled. If the team decides to call out Ballard, so be it, but that is up to the GM and Coach as to what to do further with this matter. Give him a game in the box, and then have him just as if nothing happened after that.
Tony: The same way a player gets 4 minutes for drawing blood for lifting another players stick and it hits them in the face. There is no intent but you need to have control of your stick at all times.
Anthony: So, if Steve Mason hit his own player last night after losing in a shootout when he tried to break his stick in anger and frustration, as we see more often than not from players and goalies, you think the league shoud issue punishment for a player hitting his OWN teammate? To set an “example”?
Nick: That’s why I find myself so stuck on this. Ballard didn’t intend to injure anyone. He didn’t intend to hit Vokoun. However, he intended to swing the stick – and I can only imagine the uproar if he had missed an easy shot on the other side of the ice and two-handed Atlanta’s goalie.
Su: The message here is to show the consequences of losing your temper so severely, you nearly cause serious harm to a teammate because you’re not controlling your frustration or paying attention to where you’re swinging your stick.
Buddy: Since it is obvious that the Panthers won’t bench Ballard, what about a fine with the money going to charity?
Anthony: Have him play with his pay going to the players emergency fund – that is punishment. You play for free for 3 games.
Nick: I can get behind that. Since we’re running out of time, I want to throw out 2 questions to the group, if I may…They discussed something interesting during the Vokoun-Ballard pre-game interviews. In the future, do you think an incident like this should be an unsportsmanlike penalty? Something to maybe deter the action?
Anthony: Absolutely. 100%. Illegal use of the stick, unsportsmanlike conduct.
Su: I agree with that, Nick. I also agree with Buddy’s suggestion to impose a fine that goes to charity – maybe one that advocates good sportsmanship.
Tony: Yes, but I think anyone who smashes their stick against the post should be penalized. That would deter anyone from even thinking about it. It shouldn’t take an incident like [Ballard and Vokoun] to happen again for players to be deterred, but at least it’ll be in the back of their head.
Anthony: Agreed, that’s how the LEAGUE should step in. Aggressive stick use [should be a] penalty. This will control any of this in future events.
Buddy: I agree – 2 minutes for any intentional breaking of equipment.
Nick: Well, that’s it – should breaking your stick in anger be a 2 minute unsportsmanlike penalty?
Buddy: It should have been then [in the Ballard situation].
Su: I think it should be 4 minutes. That will hopefully make players think twice.
Buddy: 4 would be OK, too
Anthony: The best way to teach a lesson: 2 minutes for illegal or Unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10 minute misconduct for intent of some sort. That’s punishment.
Nick: Interesting – of course you always get in that gray area of how do you judge intent – but I think you may be on to something there, Anthony.
Su: How about this: 4 minutes for intent (aggressive stick smashing or whatever), and any additional penalty is dependent on the situation?
Anthony: The 10 minute misconduct penalty usually gives a player enough tie to realize how retarded they were acting. It usually stops fights from happening further in games. Therefore, a 4 minute double minor and the 10 minute misconduct for agreesive stick abuse plus the 10 minutes for intent to cool off. Then if a team needs to step in if it’s as serious as the ballard situation, 1-2-3 games of playing for free, forefieting your salary to a charity or to the Players’ Emergency Fund.
Nick: It’s true – the baseball example fits in well there. I was at a Yankee game a few years ago, and saw an opposing player ejected from the game for breaking his bat over home plate after striking out. You rarely see it done on the field in baseball.
Su: At a Seattle Thunderbirds game a couple of weekends ago, I saw the Captain of another team sent to the locker room for arguing a 2:00 penalty, then throwing his stick in anger. He did come back for the next period, but it was an unsportsmanlike conduct call.
Anthony: Then this should be copied into the NHL.
Tony: Again, are we expecting too much from the League? This is the same office that didn’t see anything wrong with Mike Richards’ head shot to David Booth, who is still out of the lineup might I add.
Anthony: And not even skating. Even I think Mike Richards should have been shut down for 5 games – and I’m a Flyers die hard. He left his skates!
Tony: Agreed, Anthony.
Nick: Well, that’s why I’m asking you guys instead of Colin Campbell.
Buddy: I think the league and the team both dropped the ball by doing nothing. I did not see anyone calling Toronto when it happened. Do you know if they were involved?
Anthony: No, the league was never brought into this on any level.
Nick: I never heard anything about it…and it’s funny, until my uncle asked me I never jumped to the suspension question either.
Buddy: It would be a good question for Bettman on his show tomorrow afternoon.
Nick: It would [HINT HINT for anyone reading this who can call into the NHL Hour tomorrow]
Nick: So, final quick question since I know you all have to run: You’re in charge of NHL discipline. Do you take action against Ballard, and do you propose a rule to discourage this in the future?
Anthony: No action against Ballard by the NHL since it’s in the books now. However, a rule proposal for this kind of thing to be stopped in the future is a MUST. The Panthers should take action against Ballard at this point. The league should step in and make a rule about it for future actions.
Buddy: The officials should have done something at the time. If there was no specific rule on the books then an unspoirtsmanlike conduct would have been good enough. As was discussed above, damaging equipment in an agressive manner should be on the books if it is not, with a specific penalty to go with it.
Tony: I propose to the rule committee that anyone swinging their stick in anger, frustration etc….shall receive a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. 3 of such penalities in the same season will result in the league office giving an automatic 1 game suspension each subsequent infraction will follow suit.
Su: I would take a look at this and other recent incidents and work to broaden the “unsportsmanlike conduct” rules in the books and establish tougher penalty ranges. I would also work closely with the teams to help set up guidelines to “unacceptable” behavior.
Nick: I personally would suspend him for a game because he swung the stick on purpose, and I would assess a 2-minute unsportsmanlike penalty for intentional breaking of equipment in the future – with an option for a 10-minute misconduct, or a suspension for repeat offenses, like Tony suggests.
Buddy: The league has basically stuck their head in the sand on this one
Nick: They did…
Tony: How typical of them.
Su: They seem to have their heads in the sand a lot.
Nick: That Down Goes Brown suspension chart was a little too real…
Nick: OK, barring any final statements, thank you all very much, and have a great day!
Great things happen when you put great hockey minds together and talk about things, and I hope we can do more of these. What do you guys think?
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