One of the issues that Brandon Shanahan has in his role as the NHL Director of Player Safety is to be consistent with dealing with questionable hits. He, along with the rest of the league, has attempted to make the process much more transparent for fans with videos highlighting key points as to why a player was suspended for the amount of games they were.
Although the process has had some flaws like all new things do, it's been one of the more successful things the NHL has done to accommodate and educate in recent years. I may not always agree with the call but at least I will know the rationale and Shanahan is building consistency through his decisions.
And it's a process after seeing Kyle Rau suspended for one game last Saturday that one way or another I hope to see the WCHA take.
On first glance, the hit by the Minnesota freshman on Denver's Jason Zucker was worthy of a penalty regardless of whether or not Zucker was injured. Rau is a physical player - it's one of his strength - who finishes checks. Kyle made a similar play earlier in the year against Minnesota State that got called as a roughing penalty and laid out Colorado College's Archie Skalbeck on an open-ice hit.
However, this play was above both with Rau skating for 30 feet to make the hit. Any one of charging, boarding or roughing could be called but a suspension? Even with the injury and Zucker lying on the ice motionless, it's tough for me to buy that what was a game misconduct (which is just for the rest of the game) turned into a game disqualification (which is a one-game suspension) the next day. There have been worse hits in the WCHA that weren't deemed to be worthy of further discipline.
There are many theories out there as why Rau was the straw that broke the WCHA's back. Some have speculated that the national coverage on NBC Sports Network played a role pointing at the hit Minnesota Duluth's Joe Basaraba had on North Dakota's Nick Mattson (see below). That play saw the Florida Panthers pick receive a 5 minute major and a game misconduct in a game broadcast on the much smaller CBS Sports Network.
(Thanks to C.J. Fogler [@cjzero] for the videos)
Others have speculated that having one of Denver's stars being injured was the catalyst. It's not a bad theory because injuries do need to play a role, for better or worse, when discussing supplemental discipline. Therefore Wisconsin's John Ramage was suspended for this hit which took out St. Cloud State's Nick Oliver indefinitely, right?
Wrong. Ramage got a 5 minute major for contact to the head in a game that was broadcast on BTN but did not get suspended by the league. The same goes for North Dakota's Danny Kristo for his hit on Minnesota's Ben Marshall and follow-up actions, Mark Alt for a checking from behind penalty the same weekend and the list goes on.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod spoke to Brian Halverson and Tyler Buckentine of USCHO.com on the hit and had this to say.
"We decided in the Zucker-Rau incident, after looking at all the factors involved, that there were enough other circumstances involved," said McLeod, who didn't specify said circumstances. "We wrote them down and conversed about them. We talked on the phone until about 2 a.m. Central Time.
"We agreed on a route, we slept on it and made our decision first thing Saturday morning."
That answers absolutely nothing on why Rau was suspended when others weren't. McLeod and the WCHA failed to clear up anything or give a rationale as to which factors they look into when giving supplemental discipline unlike the NHL.
Is it a late hit? Absolutely. Did he hit Zucker in the head? At best it's debatable. Was it a check from behind? No. Would it have been dirty if Zucker popped back up? I can't say yes to that.
And when that ends up being suspended with the injury, with the fact it's on NBC Sports Net instead of just FSN or CBS Sports Net, I have a problem with the consistency the WCHA shows. When other hits that have similar qualities and are at worst a 5 minute major and a game misconduct, it goes back to consistency.
If Bruce McLeod and the WCHA want to use this suspension as a template in the future for dealing with hits like Basaraba, Ramage or Kristo, then that's fine. They have the power to make a statement by trying to discourage dangerous plays - in all honesty, it's not a bad idea because it is a problem. If those are dealt with supplemental discipline on a consistent basis no one will complain.
Now I don't expect the WCHA to start producing two or three videos every weekend for a questionable hit. The NHL has more resources at their disposal and while the Shanahan videos are nice to watch, the real message is in understanding why players are suspended and not playing a guessing game. The WCHA can do that so hopefully suspensions like Kyle Rau's become the rule rather than the exception.