Opinion

Brady Tkachuk inflicts brain damage on Blake Wheeler and gets nothing more than a minor penalty, not even a follow-up "Tsk, tsk" phone call from the Department of Player Safety. Alex Galchenyuk knocks Adam Lowry loopy — and out of the lineup — and doesn't even get a stint in the sin bin or a finger wag from the powers-that-be.

Brady Tkachuk inflicts brain damage on Blake Wheeler and gets nothing more than a minor penalty, not even a follow-up "Tsk, tsk" phone call from the Department of Player Safety. Alex Galchenyuk knocks Adam Lowry loopy — and out of the lineup — and doesn't even get a stint in the sin bin or a finger wag from the powers-that-be.

Zach Hyman goes all Paul Bunyan as he chops Neal Pionk across the face with his stick is dinged with a US$5,000 shave off his US$2.25 million paycheque. Joe Thornton sends Mathieu Perreault to the quiet room after a deliberate, dirty play, far away from the puck, that costs him a US$3,000 deduction from his US$700,000 salary.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Alex Galchenyuk, right, gets checked by Winnipeg Jets' Mason Appleton. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/John Woods

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Toronto Maple Leafs' Alex Galchenyuk, right, gets checked by Winnipeg Jets' Mason Appleton. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/John Woods

See a pattern here? For one thing, the Winnipeg Jets have literally been taking it on the chin (and other body parts) lately, routinely on the receiving end of questionable hits and cheap shots that are testing their depth with less than a month to go until the playoffs, not to mention their collective patience.

But even more alarming to me is the cold and callous lack of response from the NHL. Night after night, game after game, the league continues to stick its head in the sand when it comes to protecting the health of players and enforcing a rulebook that continues to be wide-open for interpretation.

It's mind-boggling, really, especially given all we know about concussions and the long-term effects, which have included multiple examples of former players who committed suicide being found with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). How is this still happening in 2021?

As Jets coach Paul Maurice alluded to the other night, the "law of the jungle" mentality of the past, where players would typically sort these matters out on the ice in an attempt to seek an eye for an eye, are long gone.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman.THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Jason Franson

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Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman.THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Jason Franson

"If you circle a guy's name on the board, you get sued," Maurice seethed late Thursday when colleague Jason Bell asked if he was surprised his team didn't get any immediate payback in a 5-3 loss to the Maple Leafs in which the Lowry and Perreault incidents occurred, along with a dangerous hit-from-behind by Nick Foligno on Josh Morrissey that only resulted in a retaliatory slashing penalty to Pierre-Luc Dubois.

All of this happened on the same night Wheeler suited up for the first time in seven games after getting concussed by Tkachuk, who wasn't targeted for revenge by the Jets in two subsequent games against the Senators. Which might explain why Maurice was still in a feisty mood on Friday, when asked if he believes Toronto is a dirty team.

"If you circle a guy's name on the board, you get sued." — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice

"The league has said they're not so we'll abide by the league's rulings. But they are a poorer team. There's some fines. Probably looking at some part-time jobs now," he said with a straight face.

Zing!

The fact so-called vigilante justice has been wiped out of the sport is a positive thing. We definitely don't need another Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident, which was a black eye for the sport. But that's where the NHL is supposed to be stepping in, to make sure there are legitimate consequences to what happens on the ice.

And, despite talking a good game on that front, they continue to fail miserably.

Ottawa Senators' Brady Tkachuk. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Jason Franson

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Ottawa Senators' Brady Tkachuk. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Jason Franson

Trust me, folks. This has nothing to do with being a "homer." The Jets happen to be the club I follow full-time, and the examples cited above have all occurred in the last couple weeks. No doubt you could quickly put together a lengthy highlight-reel of similar cases involving the other 30 teams, who would also be justified in their anger, too.

Just look at Edmonton's Connor McDavid, who was on a one-man mission to take out as many Montreal Canadiens as he could in a game earlier this week, apparently fed up with the amount of uncalled abuse he was being targeted for. When the league's best player feels his own recourse is to start throwing elbows, it's a good sign you've got a big problem.

Here's something I'll never understand. The NHL has all kinds of black-and-white rules in place, ones with absolutely no room for interpretation. Flip a puck over the glass in your own end of the ice? That's an automatic penalty, regardless of if it's accidental on purpose. Cut a guy with a high-stick? That's automatically a double-minor. Go a millimetre offside 40 seconds before a goal is scored? That's getting wiped off the board, no ifs, ands or buts.

"The league has said they're not so we'll abide by the league's rulings. But they are a poorer team. There's some fines. Probably looking at some part-time jobs now." — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice when asked if he believes Toronto is a dirty team

Why is there no such standard set when it comes to head contact, which should be the No. 1 focus when it comes to player safety? Whether it's accidental (as the league apparently believes the Tkachuk/Wheeler and Galchenyuk/Lowry incidents were, hence no penalties or supplementary discipline) or on purpose, the result, rather than the intent, should be what matters most.

That would eliminate so much of this dubious grey area, and an arbitrary wheel of justice that seems to change on a frequent basis and leave everyone flummoxed and frustrated.

"If you try to get rid of it completely, that would be the way to go. There’s no place for it in the game. When I go to hit a guy I always make sure I don’t get the head. It’s the one thing I always think about when I go for a hit. If you do it that way then yeah, you would eventually get rid of all of it, for sure," Perreault told me following Friday's practice at Bell MTS Place.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Joe Thornton received a $3,000 fine from the NHL Friday for "interference" on Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Sean Kilpatrick

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Toronto Maple Leafs' Joe Thornton received a $3,000 fine from the NHL Friday for "interference" on Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Sean Kilpatrick

Fortunately, the 33-year-old dodged injury this time when Thornton, for some reason, tried to re-arrange his face. He wasn't so lucky in December 2019, when Philadelphia's Joel Farabee crushed him with a late, blindside hit. The Flyers forward was given a three-game suspension, while Perreault missed several weeks due to a concussion.

After returning from injury, Perreault was spitting fire when Vancouver's Jake Virtanen caught him with a blatant elbow that didn't lead to any supplementary discipline, famously uttering the line: "Player safety, my ass."

How is that slogan not on a line of T-shirts? I'll take an XL, please and thanks.

"Player safety, my ass." — Winnipeg Jets Mathieu Perreault

Other hockey leagues, including the amateur ranks, have set a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to head shots, which is how it should be. I saw countless examples of players kicked out of games, even for accidental, incidental contact, in my decade of coaching both my kids in minor hockey.

"I don't know the answer to that. It's a competitive thing and you're not going to like the calls that go against you. You probably won't agree with too many of them. You'd always think that if it happens to you, the other team should get more. When you do it, you don't like the call against you," Maurice said when I asked if there should be cut-and-dried rules introduced in the best league on the planet.

"I would say, from a player safety point of view, that unless it's really black and white — which is very hard to do in a motion, fast-paced sport — you're going to be left with a feeling of inconsistency. And that's just a function of the game. And I probably feel that way right now but I'm aware of the fact that it's a difficult thing to pin down."

I get that the game has never been faster, which makes policing it more difficult than ever. But if the NHL really has the players' best interests at heart, it's time to give their collective heads a shake and start doing something about it.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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