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L’Affaire Myers shows that the NHL is more than content to ignore the inconvenient

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The NHL exposes the weaknesses of its judicial system once again, but it can’t keep kicking the can down the road forever.

Montreal Canadiens v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

With 2:28 remaining in the third period of a 6-3 hockey game, Tyler Myers made contact with Joel Armia’s upper body, sending the Montreal Canadiens forward to the ice with what was later diagnosed as a concussion. After conferencing and video review, the on-ice officials, Kevin Pollock and Reid Anderson, assessed a match penalty, ejecting Myers from the game and subjecting him to potential supplemental discipline.

The official scoresheet records this event as “Event 289: PENL VAN #57 MYERS. Match penalty (10 min), Served By: #36 HOGLANDER. Drawn By: MTL #40 ARMIA.”

Friday evening, the Department of Player Safety (DoPS) declared that Myers would not receive any additional discipline, declaring that “Tyler Myers’s check on [...] Joel Armia is deemed legal.”

Watching the explanatory video, DoPS argues that Myers’s hit did not impact the head as the main point of contact. Noting that “Myers hits through Armia’s core,” the DoPS video describes Armia’s head and body as being “propelled backwards in unison,” something they claim is not characteristic of “most hits where the head is the main point of contact.” Furthermore, because Myers is deemed to have hit through Armia’s core, DoPS deems the head contact that does exist to be incidental and unavoidable. Per this explanation, DoPS states that Myers’ hit does not violate Rule 48.1 and is therefore not subject to supplemental discipline.

But this defence is curious. The crux of DoPS’s argument is that the on-ice officials made a mistake. However, strictly based on the official record, we have no indication that the on-ice officials even invoked Rule 48.1. The record states that the only penalty that was assessed was a match penalty, and while there is grounds to assess a match penalty for an illegal check to the head (Rule 48.5), there is also grounds to assess a match penalty for Rule 21.1:

A match penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.

A match penalty shall be imposed on a player or goalkeeper who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner.

This language is also present in the criteria for assessing a match penalty as part of an illegal check to the head (Rule 48.5):

“Match Penalty – The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head. If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion.“

Even if the referee’s adjudication of an illegal check to the head was in error, it does not nullify the fact that the officials believed that Myers’s actions were a deliberate act to injure — and reached this conclusion not just from viewing the hit in real time, but after considerable deliberation and with the aid of video replay review. As part of the statutory review process associated with all awarded match penalties (Rule 21.5), the referees had an opportunity to reduce Myers’s penalty, and elected not to take it.

As such, regardless of whether the hit was an illegal check to the head, Myers should still be subject to Rule 21.1 and the supplemental discipline potentially associated with it (Rule 21.5: In addition to the match penalty, the player shall be automatically suspended from further competition until the Commissioner has ruled on the issue.)

There are two considerable issues with DoPS’s judgment in this circumstance. The first is that this ruling establishes a precedent that technically legal hits (by DoPS’s standard) cannot bear intent to injure. Because DoPS fails to address the intent to injure aspect of Myers’s on-ice penalty, the implication is that Myers is being cleared of his intent to injure charge because the original hit did not violate Rule 48.1.

However, we know that legal hits are commonly used for various reasons apart from separating the puck-carrier from the puck. As the first period ended in that very same game, Pollock and Anderson whistled Joel Edmundson for interference. This penalty likely did not stem from the hit itself, but rather the on-ice context: a naked show of physicality with no desire or capacity to impact play. The officials likely used that same criteria to drive their assessment of Myers’s hit: that it was predatory (hitting a player already engaged with two opponents), that it was excessively violent (Myers could have easily elected for shoulder-to-shoulder contact rather than stepping into an unbraced Armia), and that it was meaningless in the context of a game that was well out of reach.

With this ruling, DoPS essentially countermands the authority and ability of on-ice officials to control the tenor of a game through assessing penalties based on needless and excessive violent contact. DoPS is also declaring to its wards — the players — that as long as the hit is technically legal, anything goes.

The second issue is that DoPS has officially contravened an on-ice ruling by on-ice officials. This is more common in other sports such as soccer and rugby, but is never done in hockey. Even suggesting the possibility of referee error is heavily frowned upon. Here, DoPS not only says that Pollock and Anderson got it wrong, but that they got it wrong on two counts — illegal check to the head and intent to injure — and that they got it wrong after extensive video review of the incident.

Moreover, the ruling nullfies the legitimacy of an on-ice call for a play that is technically just a minor penalty. What if this had occurred in a situation where the resulting five-minute major and ejection of a key defenceman would have actually impacted the game? What if this had occurred in the playoffs? Would DoPS have reached the same conclusions with the legitimacy and validity of the result of a game, a series, or even a season at stake?

The truly confounding thing is that DoPS had various options available to them that could have still acquitted Myers of additional punishment without opening up these unknowns. Unlike the IIHF, the NHL rulebook does not confer an automatic suspension to players receiving a match penalty. As such, DoPS could have declared Rule 48.1 to be valid, but at the same time opt against additional punishment because Myers’s actions were not egregious; there was no leap or “chicken wing.” This would both vindicate the on-ice officials while at the same time providing a plausible rationale and clarifying the role and jurisdiction of DoPS in these matters.

Perhaps the issue lies in the fact that the hockey community has a much more heinous perception of “intent to injure” than the NHL rulebook does. As such, any acknowledgement of the possibility of intent to injure leaves little ambiguity: anyone deemed to have attempted to injure an opponent is automatically worthy of (considerable) supplemental punishment. But here, the rulebook puts the on-ice officials in an untenable situation. An illegal hit to the head is either a two-minute minor or a match penalty. The rulebook offers no provision for a major or a game misconduct to be assessed (Rule 48.3 and 48.4).

Whether Myers warranted additional discipline or not, in their response the league’s player safety watchdog has simply created more ambiguity and undermined the legitimacy of not only its own office, but that of the on-ice officials that are the front-line guardians of the integrity of the game. Abdicating responsibility and delegating jurisdiction to the players comes with its own consequences, as any Canadiens or Vancouver Canucks fan well knows.