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Tkachuk, Kassian and the Aggressor Rule

January 13, 2020, 3:32 PM ET [36 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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Rather than debating the Rule Book legality of whether the two checks that Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk delivered to Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Kassian before Kassian went after Tkachuk with a flurry of punches, I will discuss two related issues that I think are prime importance in this situation.

There's still plenty to unpack, which is why, for purposes of this blog, I will defer to the judgement of the on-ice officials that Tkachuk's hits were legal: neither charges nor checks that targeted the head. That is arguable, but I think there are other topics raised by this particular incident that stand out in my mind.

1. Not illegal doesn't always equal clean.

In the everyday world, just because something isn't done in an explicitly illegal way doesn't automatically make it right, ethical or fair. The same thing goes for hockey. A player's borderline actions may not, in an official's judgement and interpretation, merit a penalty under the Rule Book. That doesn't necessarily equate to the play being "clean" or a "good hockey play."

In this instance, a winger (Tkachuk) deliberately took himself out of position and, from above the goal line, approached to deliver a body check to an opponent (Kassian) who was engaged below the goal line with a defender on Tkachuk's team. It's not a smart hockey play to make. It's also not why body checks are designed to be a permitted part of the game. They exist to separate someone from the puck, not to separate him from his head when there's no reasonable chance of bracing to safely receive the hit. Technically legal or not, Kassian could have been injured.

This type of a hit from above the goal line to below would have drawn an immediate response in the era that I reffed in the NHL. It would have drawn an immediate response even back in the Jurassic era when I played in the WHA and NHL.

This isn't Tkachuk's first rodeo. He knew what he was doing, who he was hitting, and what the response was going to be. The very reason why Claude Lemieux was so widely hated and disrespected around the game was for actions like these, followed by turtling to avoid accountability.

2. The Aggressor Rule was misapplied.

Kassian's hearing with the NHL's Department of Player Safety (DOPS) is for an aggressor/roughing infraction. This, in my estimation, is a misapplication of the Aggressor Rule.

The Aggressor Rule was created to prevent situations in which a defenseless player or non-combatant gets attacked. An example would the incident some years ago between Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery and Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. A line brawl broke out in the Washington zone. Holtby stayed in his net, minding his own business.

Nevertheless, Emery skated down the length of the ice and challenged Holtby to a fight. Holtby refused, but Emery said "OK, then protect yourself," and proceeded to beat down the opposing goalie.

THAT sort of situation is a specific reason why the aggressor penalty exists. It also exists to prevent a team's skill players from being jumped and pummeled by opposing players as a strategy for taking them off the ice. Basically, it's an "innocent bystander" protection from being jumped and forced to fight.

Tkachuk was no innocent bystander here. He wanted to have his cake (hitting Kassian in the manner that he did) and eat it, too (not obliging a fight challenge). That's Tkachuk's prerogative not to fight, no matter what he'd just done, but this was not an aggressor penalty situation.

The aggressor penalty was not designed to reward a provocateur who incites an opponent to turtle upon being challenged. I would suppose the DOPS argument would be that Kassian kept punching after it was clear that Tkachuk wasn't going to oblige him. I personally did not feel that the situation was territory into which it's wise to expand the definition of the aggressor penalty.

The problem with the misapplication of the aggressor penalty is that: 1) it spawns copycat situations, 2) It raises the risk of stick-related forms of response -- cross-checks to the head, spearing, etc.

Then again, I'm a dinosaur. What do I know?

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A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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