Only Matthew Tkachuk could get suspended for being Matthew Tkachuk.
Seriously, that’s what the long-awaited video from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety essentially admitted with one of its most anticipated releases in recent memory. We got it just before the stroke of midnight at NHL headquarters, eight hours after a phone hearing with Tkachuk concluded.
With that much time to prepare, you’d think the league’s disciplinarians would be able to come up with something a little more convincing. But they got this one wrong. So wrong. In so many different ways.
Tkachuk wasn’t blameless for the events that took place on Wednesday night in Detroit against the Red Wings. A fine should have been expected. But citing him as the instigator of the fisticuffs that took place late in the third period takes the burden of blame off the person who truly sparked the entire incident — Luke (Half) Witkowski.
Nearing the end of an 8-2 shellacking of the Flames, the Wings tough guy roughed up young Flames defender Brett Kulak, and after soundly knocking the kid to the ice, gave him an extra body slam for good measure. Tkachuk took exception to the way the fight ended, and who Witkowski picked it with, as well as the timing of it with the game well in hand.
The Flames sophomore stalked Witkowski as he was guided off the ice by a linesman, and then subtly swatted at his ankle as he hit the rubber floor to further express his displeasure. That, apparently, is worth a game off — if you’re Matthew Tkachuk.
The video admits that neither the slash — which was already incorrectly penalized with a five-minute major for spearing, along with a game misconduct — or shoves Tkachuk engaged in after Witkowski returned to the ice for revenge merit supplemental discipline alone. No, it was “the totality of Tkachuk’s actions, combined with his repeat offender status, that escalate this play to merit supplemental discipline.”
Yep, Tkachuk got suspended for being Tkachuk.
His status as a repeat offender comes from his suspension as a rookie last year for an elbow to the face of Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. No argument on that one. This is his first infraction since then, but the sophomore already has a reputation as a disruptor. The league tends to frown on guys that play with an edge.
The reasoning for Tkachuk’s second suspension in as many years has more holes in it than a sieve (insert Eddie Lack joke here).
“The unsportsmanlike conduct of Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk sparked a series of altercations between the Flames and Red Wings,” said the video.
Debatable. Some would argue it was Witkowski’s actions that sparked it. First with his inflammatory actions with Kulak. Then with an inability to control his anger after the love tap, and continue to the dressing room rather than return to the ice to mix it up with Tkachuk and company.
As Philadelphia Flyers reporter Al Morganti tweeted on Thursday, I’ve been poked harder on Facebook.
But the video offered more evidence.
“Players are not permitted to make intentional contact with an opponent who is off the playing surface, especially when it is intended to escalate a confrontation.”
There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, it’s really tough to prove intention while suggesting Tkachuk was actually trying to escalate things. Did he really think Witkowski would be dumb enough to turn around after a one-handed jab to his skates? Probably not. It’s much more logical that Tkachuk was just trying to get in the last word, a pest parting gift of sorts.
Where things get really obvious, though, that this ruling wouldn’t have been the same for another player is a similar example that resulted in fines just a couple of weeks ago.
Alex Killorn of the Tampa Bay Lightning got a $5,000 fine after a spear slightly more legitimate than Tkachuk’s landed on forward Kevin Hayes on the New York Rangers bench earlier this month.
Hayes squirted water at Killorn over the boards. Killorn stuck his stick off the ice and stabbed at Hayes and another Rangers teammate. Fines all around. Killorn, Hayes, and Steven Stamkos — who also squirted water — each got dinged $5,000. Killorn hasn’t been suspended previously, but was eyeballed in 2014 after a sketchy hit from behind on Paul Ranger resulted in the defenceman being stretchered off the ice, and Killorn serving a five-minute boarding major for a play as reckless as Tkachuk’s elbow.
But you don’t have to look outside the Flames/Red Wings game itself for contradiction in the ruling. By definition, the actions of Anthony Mantha’s MMA-style ground and pound on Travis Hamonic in the resulting skirmishes were a perfect example of making contact with a player off the ice surface.
Mantha shoved Hamonic through an open door and then got in at least seven or eight blows while the Flames defencemen has his back on the rubber floor, unable to properly defend himself. If this decision is truly about player safety and not just sending a message to a player with an edge who has crossed the line before, then why didn’t Mantha receive a call?
No supplemental discipline for that one. Apparently, that code-breaking move didn’t contravene the same rules as Tkachuk’s actions, only fuelling the feelings of contempt for NHL justice among players both active and retired.
Without the time for a deep research dive, it’s not clear if anyone in the NHL has been suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct before. But even the repeat-iest of repeat offenders, Sean Avery, got credit for the creation of a new rule as opposed to a suspension for his unsportsmanlike actions in shadow-mocking goalie Martin Brodeur.
Perhaps it’s the antics of the league’s previous superpests — many of them not nearly as talented as Tkachuk — that led the disciplinarians to flex their muscles in the face of the latest and greatest of the breed.
Barring a sequel video with a better explanation, we may never know for sure. But the spearing call was wrong on the ice at the time, and the suspension only further shows just how flawed the system remains.