Saturday, February 16, 2013

On the Justification of Matt Cooke Escaping Supplemental Discipline

When Brendan Shanahan succeeded Colin Campbell as the NHL's chief disciplinarian in June of 2011, the change was fueled by widespread criticism of the latter's tenure, culminating with the leak of certain emails he composed in 2006 and 2007. Already under fire for his inconsistency when handing down suspensions, Campbell's emails worked as additional evidence of biases preventing the proper function of the position to be achieved.

Shortly after Campbell stepped down, Shanahan acknowledged that the goal behind supplemental discipline is "player safety," and has since followed through on his pledge for decision-making to be done in a more uniform and transparent manner. More or less, Shahahan wanted to shift away from Campbell's general ambiguity regarding whether or not a play would receive attention from the league, instead making it widely known why or why not certain conduct would be considered and/or deemed suspendable. In the brief period we've known the "Shanaban" to be in existence, whether or not we agree with the final ruling, Shanahan's videos explaining the reasoning behind every decision have certainly worked to create a more uniform understanding of what the league is looking at in each case.

Enter: Matthew David Cooke.

By now, we've all formed an opinion on the controversial play that occurred during the second period of Wednesday night's game between Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Whether or not one believes that Matt Cooke acted with the intent to injure Erik Karlsson, those charged with deciding whether supplemental discipline was warranted ultimately concluded intent to injure was absent in this case.

For many, this was a suitable end to what was commonly deemed a "hockey play." However, a rather curious word appearing in the reasoning from the NHL and others alike is that of "intent." Granted, it is admittedly difficult to establish intent on a play like this because of the general speed of hockey and how fast things happen at ice-level. Nonetheless, is Cooke's intent something we should be worried about here? The following video points out the validity of such a question:

Using the standard format adopted since becoming the Director of NHL Player Safety, Shanahan goes through an analysis of an illegal check by Colin McDonald on Ben Lovejoy. After determining that McDonald was guilty of boarding, Shanahan candidly admits that he accepts McDonald's assertion of no malicious intent. What is more, Shanahan explains that McDonald's intent is immaterial because it is a "reckless and dangerous play." Running through the other factors commonly considered, he notes that there was no apparently injury and that McDonald has no prior history of discipline.

Moving back to the standard of culpability, if intent was immaterial when suspending McDonald because his conduct was "reckless," why is it suddenly required to discipline Cooke? Moreover, if the league is implying that intent, rather than recklessness, must be the standard for a play to be adjudged illegal after the fact (which doesn't seem to be the case), the league's justification for Cooke escaping supplemental discipline is yet another chapter in a library of inconsistent rulings. We can infer that the Department of Player Safety doesn't believe Cooke to be guilty of their first element, e.g. a rules infraction, but the absence of a clear articulation of such a position is rather illogical.

In other words, why speak to Cooke's intent when it should be immaterial? Though intent to injure is difficult to prove here, can the same be said for recklessness? The league must have felt so, noting that the decision for Cooke to escape supplemental discipline also included the absence of a hearing.

In a video that’s gained praise for establishing how common these sorts of plays are, TSN's Aaron Ward cites two examples from the first period of Wednesday's Dallas at Calgary game, where players go for what he calls a "hit and pin," similar to Cooke's check on Karlsson.

However, after watching the video, there was a noticeable difference between Cooke's attempt and the others that were examined. Rather than establish an absence of blame for Cooke's conduct, Ward's examples actually helped explain just how dangerous the check actually was.

Consider the following images:

When contact is initiated between Cooke and Karlsson, both players are heading toward the boards as they try to retrieve a loose puck. Karlsson's position includes the gap between his legs necessary to pin a player, seemingly Cooke's intention bearing in mind the position of his left leg.

Before the players make contact with the wall, Cooke's right skate is positioned at the same angle of the first image above, while the gap between Karlsson's legs has narrowed, a result of their battle for position. However, Cooke's left skate has risen from the ice, and his skate blade is noticeably at a much wider angle than before, almost parallel to the boards. A bit of a peculiar line to take rather than establishing a pin by pointing his foot at a 90 degree angle to the boards, situated to the left of Karlsson's right leg. Even so, should the two contact the wall in this position, all of this is likely of little concern.

However, the moment Karlsson reaches the wall is where the issue develops. Cooke's skate still remains at a wide open angle rather than pointed at the "GH" in "Highmark" along the boards, and has actually reached its highest point above ice level. Karlsson's legs have slowly closed prior to impact, the gap required for a pin now removed. Whether it was Cooke's decision or natural reaction to channel his inner Captain Morgan, his skate being parallel to the boards instead of pointed toward them has put Karlsson in a vulnerable position should it contact the unprotected back of his legs.

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Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens. There remains a wide disparity between the angles of Cooke's left and right skates, and Cooke's failure to place his left skate between either of Karlsson's results in his blade contacting the back of Karlsson's left Achilles. An unfortunate result to an unfortunate play, but just how common is something like this?

Let us move to Aaron Ward’s breakdown below:

Right away, we see that Ward's first example of a "hit and pin" involving Dillon and Stempniak is markedly dissimilar to when the contact initiated between Cooke and Karlsson. Rather than having both players engaged with one another and gliding into the boards together, Stempniak is already close to the wall as Dillon approaches from a distance. Stempniak also has neither his back turned, nor the unprotected back section of his legs vulnerable to a skate blade.

Stepmniak then plays the puck around the end-wall, while Dillon goes for the "pin," which seems to resemble more of a standard body check. Regardless, notice where Dillon's skates are compared to Cooke's just before impact.

The noted whirling dervish that he is, Stempniak jumps out of the way of the check. It is only after Dillon contacts the wall that his skate rises above the yellow.

Example number two involved Dennis Wideman making a pin attempt as he skates in, also from a distance:

The difference between this hit and Ward's first example is that the Dallas player gets the puck tangled between his legs, meaning the disc wasn't moving prior to contact as with Dillon's missed check.

Once he receives the puck, the gap between his legs necessary for a pin is exhibited.

Again, just prior to contact, both of Wideman's skates remain on the ice. Wideman then moves into position to establish the pin.

It is only once contact is made and the puck battle is established that Wideman's right skate comes above ice level, again nowhere near as high as the skate that injured Karlsson. What is more, his blade is at a 90 degree angle to the wall, ensuring the Dallas player is in no danger of unnecessary injury.

Though it is inarguable that pinning a player along the wall happens during every NHL game, it does not follow that Ward's examples absolve Cooke of wrongdoing. Whether or not Cooke intended to hurt Karlsson, there is an argument to be made that Cooke's reckless positioning of his left leg and skate blade worked to put Karlsson in a vulnerable situation, as opposed to the examples of Dillon or Wideman. Perhaps conduct similar to Cooke's is more common than Ward's illustrations seem to suggest, but players have engaged one another heading into the boards with few similar resulting injuries to-date.

It is true that we don't know whether Matt Cooke intended to hurt Erik Karlsson. However, it is rather evident that the way he approached his check doesn't seem to do Karlsson many favors, while the league's sudden fixture with Cooke's intent ignores a play with the signs of reckless conduct. If the Department of Player Safety doesn't want to suspend Cooke, that's ultimately their call. However, relying on his failure to meet a level of culpability that until now hasn't been required, all the while refusing to grant a hearing when signs of recklessness could be established, Karlsson suffered an injury on the play, and Cooke has a lengthy prior history, is unjustifiable.

Brendan Shanahan was supposed to help rid ambiguity from the NHL's administering of supplemental discipline. However, if the standard of review is constantly in flux, the NHL's "wheel of justice" shall live long and prosper.


  1. Good post. A few things:

    (1) For years, I, and many others, have called on the NHL to not only release explanations when they impose supplemental discipline, but also when they dont. By failing to do so, the NHL lets interpretation of the message to be filter through the media, which opens up the possibility of confusion depending on who is hearing and then repeating the message.

    (2) We don't know why Cooke's leg comes up as it does. It could be because he becomes slightly off balance after he connects with Karlsson. That would offer evidence against the "recklessness" of Cooke's play.

  2. Thanks. I'm aware of the "off balance" argument, though I'm skeptical because he seems to be in control the whole way and his left leg actually rises rather than initially coming down as you'd think it would when his balance became impaired.

    Regardless, I think there's enough here (mainly with his wide open skate blade) to at least consider that what he did was reckless. I don't have a problem with Cooke not being suspended if the league ultimately reaches that conclusion, but I don't agree with the way they seemed to reach it in this case.

  3. Curious that in the other examples given, the pinned players (including Stempniak though he never actually got pinned) never put their legs together. Karlsson did. Obviously still has nothing to do with the height of Cooke's skate, but that just adds to the oddity of the play, in my opinion.