Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader levels Anaheim Ducks defenseman Toni Lydman drawing a five-minute major penalty which led to the Ducks' game winning goal and getting himself ejected from the game in the second period. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Detroit — There is no black. There is no white. There is only gray, and in the NHL, where the league office insists on dual residency in the United States and Canada, there's really no agreement on that, either.
Is it a gray area? Or is it a grey area? When it comes to drawing the line between legal hits and illegal ones, when it comes to delivering head shots and shouldering the burden of blame for head injuries, when it comes to making the calls in the heat of the moment and then relying on cooler heads to prevail later when trying to divine intent, there is never a consensus.
And amid all the angry debate less than a week into this year's playoffs, I'm more convinced than ever there never will be.
While the Red Wings awaited a verdict Sunday — one that finally came with a two-game suspension for Justin Abdelkader, following his controversial hit on Anaheim's Toni Lydman in Game 3 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series — the NHL, still bothered by its own blurry vision, is waiting for something close to clarity.
And to hear the players and coaches talk — here, there, everywhere — it's going to be a long, confusing wait. No verdict from Brendan Shanahan was going to change that, because about the only thing everyone can agree on, as Anaheim's Teemu Selanne noted after practice Sunday at Joe Louis Arena, is that the league's vice president of player safety has a "tough job."
No way to please all
I'd call it an impossible one, actually, even as former NHL general manager and coach Mike Milbury, now an NBC analyst who rails against the "pansification" of the league, was predicting a multiple-game suspension for Abdelkader on Sunday. ("I don't think there's any question about this one," Milbury said. "I think it's easy for Brendan Shanahan.")
Easy? Hardly. Look, I thought a suspension for Abdelkader was likely after Saturday's charging call. And I happen to think Shanahan has done an admirable job making the most of a thankless one. He's had his share of missteps as he tries to strike a balance between education and deterrence, with Shea Weber's wrist slap for his WWF move on Henrik Zetterberg last year among the more glaring examples in Detroit. But nothing's "easy" about any of this.
Really now, how do you change the culture of a sport when it's that culture that gets championed above all else? How do you protect players when they make it clear with their play — if not their words — they don't want to be protected? How do you eliminate the highlight-reel collisions the fans cheer without losing those cheering fans?
Late Saturday night, there was defenseman Kyle Quincey, suspended last April for an elbow to the head of Florida's Tomas Kopecky, admitting with a shrug, "Personally, for a defenseman, the risk-reward to hit anybody right now, there's no point. The chances of hitting a guy clean and not getting a suspension are very slim."
Even slimmer, though, is the chance we'll reach a point where everyone in hockey agrees on what they're seeing. Rewind, play, pause. It doesn't seem to matter, not even remotely.
"I watched the hit again today and, holy mackerel, I don't know what you're gonna even suspend him for," Wings coach Mike Babcock insisted, still arguing with the general perception of Abdelkader's hit a day later. "That's me. Now if you turn the video around and you pretend there's contact to the head, maybe you can find something. But the guy's gliding, he goes through a guy, I don't know."
I don't know what Babcock saw, honestly. But just to clarify, I asked him Sunday if he was saying there was no contact with Lydman's head by Abdelkader, mostly because there clearly was. (Shanahan's ruling called it "significant head contact," for what it's worth.)
"None," Babcock answered, repeating that word for emphasis. "I think it was shoulder-to-shoulder, bent knees going into a guy, exploding through him. … I think if you turn the video and you look at it from this angle coming in — because you don't see what's actually happening — you could think that. I don't see that at all. But if I'm coaching (Anaheim), I can find a way to see it different."
Two sides to everything
That's the problem, or at least part of it: Everyone feels they have no choice but to take sides. ("It's a hard thing to talk about when it's your own teammate," Wings forward Daniel Cleary admitted.) And violence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, particularly in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where the jarring hits have long been a sight to behold. Take the CBC's playoff promo video this year, for example. It's terrific — goose bumps, from start to "Baba O'Riley" finish — but it also includes a fair share of ugliness, including a head shot we all remember in this town: Scott Stevens destroying Slava Kozlov in Game 2 of the '95 Cup Finals.
But what's known about brain injuries now wasn't then. As a result, what was acceptable then can't be anymore. So the league has made it a mandate to eliminate head shots and reckless, dangerous plays, with everyone — coaches, GMs, players — supposedly on board.
Right up until there's a hit that leaves one player facing supplementary discipline and another with lingering headaches and an aversion to bright lights, as Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau described Lydman's condition Sunday. Boudreau declined to lobby for a suspension — "They're going to make a judgment, and we'll live with it," he said — and Lydman's teammates were mostly doing the same, though Selanne did call Abdelkader's hit "totally unnecessary."
Babcock, meanwhile, insisted it was just the opposite.
"I think if you're Abdelkader, you finish your check," Babcock said, when I asked him how tough it is for players to know right from wrong these days. "You go through people. That's what you're supposed to do. That's what we pay 'em to do."
And that's why it's so difficult to see this league ever reconciling with the truth: What you see is always what you get.