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Point/Counter-Point with Chris from NOHS: Punishing Intent vs. Outcome

As of this writing, the latest NHL player to face the wrath of the Shanahammer is Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard. To get you up to speed on what happened, here's the video from Shanahan explaining the suspension and showing video of what happened.  Shanahan explains in the video below that, while he believes Bouchard did not intend to hit Calvert in the face, he has to be in better control of his stick in this situation and that Calvert's injury played a factor in his decision to force Bouchard to miss games against the Islanders and Senators.

Bouchard's agent, Allan Walsh told the Star Tribune's Michael Russo that the suspension was a shameful farce for the league, going so far in defense of his client as to say that Calvert hi-sticked himself.  As a result of his statements, news-aggregator nonpareil Paul Kukla posted a clip of Walsh's comments on his blog, igniting a debate in the comments section.  Here is the part that Paul posted:

What message is Brendan Shanahan sending with this unwarranted suspension? All perennial Lady Byng candidates should now be on notice that when an opponent high sticks himself in the mouth, he can expect a minimum suspension of 2 regular season NHL games. This result is a shameful farce for the League.

Taking up the case of those who believe Shanahan overstepped his bounds and delivered an undue suspension to a player who was penalized enough by the game's referees was Chris from fellow Red Wings blog Nightmare on Helm Street. I sided with those who feel that the reckless nature of the swing combined with the injury outcome give Shanahan good enough reason to have laid supplemental discipline on the perennial low-penalty-minute guy. From there, our discussion evolved into one about whether a suspension should be based solely on a players' intent or whether the addition or lack of an injury should even factor into the decision.

Keep reading for our thoughts on the situation, then sound off in the comments with where you stand on the issue.

Chris' Thoughts:

Starting off, I need to stress that my entire interpretation of this incident is of the view that Bouchard attempted to slash Calvert in the hands while his hands were at stomach level and Calvert responded by lifting Bouchard’s stick enough to strike Calvert’s face.  Had it hit Calvert’s gloves, Bouchard’s slash would have been a normal slash which occurs dozens, if not hundreds of times within a game. The video isn’t perfect; this can and has been debated, but this interpretation is important to my view and I think generally JJ and I are in agreement about this. 

Shanahan, along with JJ, believe that essentially, Bouchard’s slash was reckless, regardless of where it was intended.  As he put it, each time you slash an opponent, you run the "risk each time that an extenuating circumstance is going to come up which is going to lead to you getting suspended for recklessly, dangerously and intentionally swinging your stick at another person."   And if that is the end result, you should be punished for it, as you are responsible for your stick and were the reckless one in the first place. 

While I understand JJ’s point, I can’t agree.  I’m firmly of the notion that you shouldn’t punish for the injury or outcome, even though it might seem like the easy or even right thing to do.   What should be punished is the act intended and, objectively (not subjectively) what harm the act would naturally flow from the act.  Punishment should be applied on that criterion. 

This can be a hard concept to grasp at times.  Let’s take an easy example, using our (my?) favorite player, Mr. Todd Bertuzzi and his now infamous incident with Steve Moore.   As I said, the intent which is important is whether he intended to do the act he did (usually this answer is yes.)   For Bertuzzi, it was to punch Moore in the back of the head, while he was defenseless, skating away.  Essentially, he punched an unsuspecting player, from behind, with force sufficient to do serious bodily harm.   This sort of act is very dangerous and is likely to lead to serious injury.  Thus, it should come with it a serious penalty and suspension, as it did for Bertuzzi. 

Now, hypothetically, what if Moore’s neck, for whatever reason, was made of titanium and he wasn’t injured on the play.  Should Bertuzzi’s punishment be less, since Moore wasn’t hurt?  His actions haven’t changed at all; he still would have at Moore from behind and punched him in the back of the head, with force sufficient to do serious harm.   The only difference here is that Moore’s neck was stronger.   If two players commit identical acts, why should they have different penalties simply because of how the victim reacted?  It doesn’t follow logically.  Equal punishment for equal acts.  

In the present situation, Bouchard attempted to slash the gloves of Calvert.  Had there been no other intervening action, this is what would have occurred. This slash, to me at least, is a slash that happens hundreds of times a night and, if called, is a two minute penalty. 

It was Calvert’s action that caused the additional injury here and made, what is admittedly a minor slash into something more.  He lifted Bouchard’s stick enough to strike him in the face.  Had he not, he would have received a slash at the gloves, something JJ admits isn’t suspension worthy.   Again, in these two situations, Bouchard’s intent or act hasn’t changed; it was the reaction of the other party which differed. 

If we were to decide that slashing a person above the waist is so inherently risky that it deserves a suspension, then the slash should be suspendable whether or not Calvert moved.  But as noted above, it isn’t, and thus, you can’t treat one act differently than another because of the outcome.  It simply doesn’t make sense. 

I want to finish with this example:  Had Bouchard performed the exact same slash and Calvert, for whatever reason, fell on his knees at the very last second, so that Calvert’s stick hit him in the face, should Bouchard still be suspended?   Here, not only did Bouchard perform the same act, the outcome is the same too, he was hit in the face with Bouchard’s stick.   So if this is different, why? 

Click here to go to NOHS and check their comments on the topic.

My Thoughts:

I'll start with saying that I absolutely believe a player's intent should be the very first thing that is judged when considering either the necessity or severity of a suspension. I'll also say that I agree with Shanahan when he says he believes Bouchard's intent was to give Calvert a retaliatory slash on the hands and not a dirty chop to the face. That said, I believe Bouchard's suspension was right in the proper range. I could have been satisfied with one game as well, but not with a fine. I think three would have been too harsh. Still, I don't believe that a double-minor is adequate-enough punishment given the reckless and dangerous nature of the play and I think that the outcome is what might have taken this from a simple fine to a cautionary suspension.

The issue is that intentionally swinging the stick at an opponent in such a manner is a much worse thing than carelessly hi-sticking a guy and drawing blood. While Bouchard didn't mean to hit Calvert in the face, he DID mean to swing his stick at him. Bouchard's intent in this play is the primary factor I'm considering when I say he deserved extra punishment.

However, Chris did bring an interesting point up. He asked if I feel it should have been a suspension if Bouchard had succeeded in slashing the hands. My honest answer to this question is no. Without the injury, I don't believe there should have been a suspension. The logical progression is that this is Bouchard's intent and therefore punishing him harder because he accidentally broke a guy's teeth is an overreach of power and one that does not sufficiently teach other players a lesson about what not to do in the future.  I disagree with this.

I feel the suspension, combined with the stitches and busted teeth work as a two-way cautionary tale and therefore make the punishments roughly equal in scope and in caution. If Bouchard doesn't try to slash a guy above the waist in the first place, he is not sitting for two games. On the other side, if Calvert doesn't instigate the activities with the leg-tap and corkscrew maneuver (as well as with a little carelessness with his own stick leading up to the injury), then Calvert doesn't suffer from a split mouth and a coupon for future dental procedures.  It's not as though players are going to line up to get busted in the mouth for the sole purpose of getting his opponent suspended against two non-division opponents.

Ultimately, the difference comes down mainly to intent (since Bouchard meant to hit Calvert with his stick), but I don't believe that if he had completed his intended action that he should have been suspended. It's not fair to say that Calvert getting hit in the face is completely his own fault, but the added injury factors in to balance things out. Both players were wrong and now both players are worse off for this having happened. To answer Mr. Walsh's original question, Brendan Shanahan is sending the message that extra-curricular stickwork is going to end up with either you getting hurt or getting punished. That said, this message brings a new problem of its own; it may be time for the league to start taking a tougher stance on those who would embellish or even fake injuries to take another guy out of the game.

But that's an argument for another day.