Just when it seemed no more controversial hits would ever occur again in the New York – Ottawa series, Chris Neil went and ruined that ideal. Depending on who you ask, Chris Neil was playing a physical game and sent a painful reminder that one should always keep their head up, especially when travelling east-west, or Chris Neil is the height of cheapshot-artistry scum who represents everything that’s wrong with hockey. While John Tortorella’s claim that Neil’s hit was identical to Raffi Torres’ hit has already been sufficiently mocked, and subsequently debunked by both bloggers and media alike, I think further examination of the play is useful.
Firstly, if you watch the video, it doesn’t appear that Neil leaves his feet to a noticeable degree prior to the hit, nor does Neil skate into Boyle. This means that any infraction on Neil’s part can’t be considered charging.
Secondly, NHL Rule 56.1 states, "The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession." What exactly constitutes immediately, you ask? Well, mean human reaction time to visual stimulus is 0.19 seconds, so you’ve got to give the player enough time to a) recognize the loss of possession and b) change his trajectory. According to the above TSN clip, Neil hit Boyle 0.3 seconds after Boyle loses possession of the puck. This means that Neil only had 0.1 seconds on average to change his trajectory, which I think you’ll agree is not much time. Also it appears the NHL uses 0.5 seconds as a guideline with which to judge late hits, (although I can’t find official documentation of this right now). In any case, I submit that considering Neil’s hit as late is uncharitable at best and completely unreasonable at worst.
Thirdly, Neil’s arm is at his side, and he has not raised his elbow, meaning that this play cannot be considered elbowing.
This means that if Neil committed an infraction on this play, it was due to the contact with Boyle’s head, violating NHL Rule 48.1.
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
If you’ve watched enough of Shanny’s videos this year, you’ll know that the key phrase in the application of this rule is "targeted and the principal point of contact". Figure 1 is a still frame from Neil’s hit on Boyle.
Based on Figure 1, I’d say that there’s a legitimate argument to be made that the head was the principal point of contact. I might disagree with you, but it’s certainly not an assertion that can be rejected out of hand.
Clearly, there’s a judgement aspect to what can be considered principal point of contact. I will now present some stills from other suspension worthy hits where the head was deemed to have been targeted and the principal point of contact. Click the picture to be taken to the suspension video.
Figure 2: Still frame of Mike Green's hit on Brett Connolly that occurred on March 8, 2012.
Figure 4: Still frame of Jean-Francois Jacques' hit on R. J. Umberger that occurred on January 8, 2012.
Figure 5: Still frame of Ian Cole's hit on Justin Abdelkader that occurred on December 31, 2011.
Figure 6: Still frame of Max Pacioretty's hit on Kris Letang that occured on Movember 26, 2011.
Figure 7: Still frame of Andre Deveaux's hit on Tomas Fleischmann that occured on November 23, 2011.
Figure 8: Still frame of Andy Sutton's hit on Gabriel Landeskog that occured on October 28, 2011.
While it’s clear from Figure 1 that Boyle’s head was the initial point of contact, I would dispute the claim that it is the principal point of contact. This is because the ratio of head contact to total contact in the Neil hit is significantly lower than in the hits that were deemed suspension worthy shown in Figures 2 through 8. Boyle's head certainly wasn't "picked", as was the case in the majority of the hits that were deemed illegal. In addition, it’s very difficult to say that Neil either recklessly or intentionally targeted Boyle’s head, which is also a necessity in order to violate Rule 48.1. Neil makes contact with Boyle’s head because Boyle is skating with his head down, but mostly Neil drives through Boyle’s body. Also, if you look at this still from a few frames after the initial contact, you’ll see that there is no more contact with Boyle’s head, and Neil is making a full body check.
I think the most rational explanation of this play is that it was a borderline-legal bodycheck during which incidental contact with Boyle’s head was made, unfortunately resulting in a concussion. I doubt this check would have been made into such a big deal if Boyle hadn’t suffered a concussion because of it.
I also don’t think that the NHL wants to remove hitting and other physicality from the game simply because someone might get concussed. That said, you could definitely argue that any hit to the head should be made a suspendable offense. There’s certainly a medical reason to do so.
However, ultimately the current NHL rules seek to provide a compromise that allows physicality and hard hitting, while punishing recklessness and cheap shots. For the most part, I think it's a good compromise, but sadly, it means that we still sometimes get plays like this. For the time being, I think we have to consider incidental head contact "just part of the game", and move on when it happens to our players, as difficult as that might be.