On Friday night, Nazem Kadri delivered a hard, low check to Alexander Ovechkin. The referees assessed a two minute minor penalty for tripping, rather than opting for the more punitive clipping penalty, which would have automatically been a major penalty due to Ovechkin seemingly being injured on the play.
The difference between a beautiful, legal hipcheck and a nefarious clipping penalty can be pretty narrow, so it’s worth taking a moment to review the gap. Helpful in this regard is a video narrated by Brendan Shanahan, back when he was an executive at the NHL’s Department of Player Safety rather than with the Maple Leafs.
The official entry in the league rulebook is Rule 44, which runs as follows:
44.1 Clipping – Clipping is the act of throwing the body, from any direction, across or below the knees of an opponent.
A player may not deliver a check in a “clipping” manner, nor lower his own body position to deliver a check on or below an opponent’s knees.
An illegal “low hit” is a check that is delivered by a player who may or may not have both skates on the ice, with his sole intent to check the opponent in the area of his knees. A player may not lower his body position to deliver a check to an opponent’s knees.
44.2 Minor Penalty – A player who commits these fouls will be assessed a minor penalty for “clipping.”
44.3 Major Penalty – If an injury occurs as a result of this “clipping” check, the player must be assessed a major penalty (see 44.5).
44.4 Match Penalty – The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent by clipping.
44.5 Game Misconduct Penalty – A game misconduct penalty must be assessed anytime a major penalty is applied for injuring an opponent by clipping.
The distinction between that gorgeous hipcheck and that nasty clip comes down to the point of contact: At or below the knees, and it’s a penalty; above the knees and sports networks can feel good running it over and over again on highlight reels.
The example offered in the video (legal on the left, illegal on the right) is helpful in showing what the differences between those points of contact look like, but because the hits chosen are both from the side it’s difficult to apply them directly to the Kadri hit on Ovechkin.
Leafs Nation’s own Jeff Veillette helps us out a bit with some slow-motion replays:
Here’s a close up of the frames of impact. I don’t like the hit, though it seems like differing opinions in point-of-contact here. pic.twitter.com/T5czWWHyw8
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 21, 2017
I’ve watched the original video of the hit a dozen times now, and I have to admit that I’m still not absolutely sure where the initial point of contact is here. The second of those slow motion replays above initially to me looked like contact just above the knee, but the motion of Ovechkin’s knee afterward looks like that was the primary area hit.
It’s the kind of play that leaves me in appreciation of the on-ice officials, who have to make this call immediately. In this case, a tripping minor looks a smart compromise, penalizing Kadri for a reckless hit but not slapping him with a major and automatic misconduct for a check that straddles the fence between legal and illegal.
I’m going to be very interested in the reaction of Player Safety. They should have access to additional camera angles on this one, and along with them a clearer view as to whether or not the hit complies with the league rules.
To me, this is a dangerous check. Whichever side of the rules it actually falls on, the fact that we’re parsing the point-of-contact to this degree all by itself shows that it’s at least a borderline check. It is, however, not remotely in the same class as the Brad Marchand hit used as an example in the clipping video above. It arose organically out of a fast-moving play, and even an inch higher and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
The good news for hockey fans is that Ovechkin was able to return the next period. Legal or not, heated playoff contest or not, nobody wants to see a player suffer a serious knee injury in a hockey game.
Update: Just in case there wasn’t enough moral ambiguity in the hit itself, Ovechkin opted for some stickwork himself to even the score after returning to the game. The officials declined to call a penalty on the play.
Not quite eye-for-eye, but Alex Ovechkin gets a little bit of vengence on Nazem Kadri with a stick blade to the ribs pic.twitter.com/WKNffwUsd6
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 22, 2017
Update 2: I promise no more updates after this, but Matt Niskanen getting in on the action was just too much to pass up. That’s an ugly slash:
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) April 22, 2017