The NHL is a reputation league. Let's not pretend it's not. Rookies don't draw the same calls as veterans, and third-liners don't draw the same calls as superstars. Sidney Crosby draws penalty calls in part because his skill on the ice often forces players to hack, hook, or trip him just to try to stop a play, and yes, in part because he talks to the officials constantly, but also in part because he's Sidney Crosby and there will always be a set of eyes watching him. It's hard to get away with fouls when someone is watching.
And it works the other way, too. Senators fans know this well, thanks to years of watching Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu play. Both players have a reputation in the league: Neil as guy who plays on the edge and deserves most of the retaliation he gets, and Ruutu as antagonistic pest who would dive from a kiss on the cheek by his own mother if he thought it might result in a power play. Though that play was, and is, beneficial to the Senators--don't think Neil's 10 hits against Florida didn't make a difference in last Thursday's win--it also means Neil better be bleeding heavily for the other side to even sniff the penalty box. Just ask Alex Ovechkin if you need proof.
So when Nick Foligno crushes Keaton Ellerby with what is indisputably a clean hit and winds up ejected for charging, you have to wonder just what the heck is going on--and knowing that the NHL is a reputation league, the question has to at least be asked if the penalty on Foligno that came out of the officials' conference only after the hit was based on a reputation he has developed.
It's not like there's been a shortage of big hits from Foligno this year.
If you're waiting for the head shots, wait a little longer. First, let's look at this open ice hit on Pat Dwyer from last season. This hit was on October 14th, 2010--before the implementation of the new rules regarding hits to the head:
That hit is right on the borderline of legal. As I've discussed in the past, Foligno seems to be at his best when he is playing a physical game. It seems like he's aware of this as well. And though I don't believe he's a dirty player, part of the nature of seeking out big hits is that there's a higher risk of penalty. It's worth noting that the league fined Foligno $2500 for this hit, the maximum allowed under the current CBA.
This is the Foligno of this season:
Picking up right where he left off, Foligno checks the Sammy Pahlsson of the Columbus Blue Jackets into the Senators' bench:
First, the Hodgson hit, which is the unfortunate result of Hodgson slipping and leaving himself in a defenseless position.
There's nothing Foligno can do here short of altering the laws of physics.
And then we see the same thing by Ryan Kesler:
Kesler clearly drops to his knees and as a result takes a blow to the head. Foligno was penalized for this hit. Was it because the hit was illegal or because it was the second check that Foligno had thrown in the same game resulting in head contact? Was that the last straw for the officials?
It's not like Foligno hasn't suffered his fair share of abuse this year.
This Sidney Crosby elbow probably could have been called roughing, but wasn't:
And just in the past few weeks, Foligno has received knee-on-knee hits in back to back games:
And then the very next game, Simon Despres of the Penguins did the same thing! Was Foligno targeted? Probably not, but one knee-on-knee hit is coincidental enough. Two in two consecutive games sure feels like a little more than coincidence. But the proof of that is merely speculatory on my part. There's no way to prove that Foligno was targeted due to his reputation.
Now, in both cases, penalties were called for the hits. Adam McQuaid received a five-minute major and a game misconduct, and a $2500 fine for the hit you just watched. Despres got two minutes for kneeing. From that, we can comfortably say that we know officials are not looking the other way when an obvious penalty is committed against Foligno.
But on the other hand, it's hard to justify ejecting Foligno from a game for a clean hit, despite how Kerry Fraser tries to explain it.
In the end, there's not enough evidence for me to definitively make an argument one way or another. Again, I don't believe Foligno is a dirty player, but he's got a pretty decent highlight reel of borderline hits. It's not difficult to believe that the officials caught the tail end of the Foligno-Ellerby collision, conferred, and decided that this was a player who had been fined before and had recently delivered blows to the head, and that because of that, there was similar intent on that hit.
If, and that's a big if, that was the case, then I'd consider that a reputation call. And that would be a shame so early in a young career.