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Therien's Take: Players Have to Be Able to Stand up for Themselves

by Chris Therien @ctherien6 /

People from around the hockey world have weighed in this week about the controversy that arose between Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk and Edmonton Oilers counterpart Zach Kassian. Since the play in question and the resulting two-game suspension handed down to Kassian have leaguewide ramifications moving forward -- including for the Flyers -- I will put my two cents in here. 

For starters, I will say that Tkachuk is as effective of a new-day NHL player as you will find. He scores goals in the "greasy" areas. He hits. He makes plays. He gets under opponents' skin. In general, he does all the things you want a power forward to do.

In order to be effective, he has to push the envelope a bit. The trick is in finding how far to push it without crossing a certain line; specifically when it comes to taking liberties on opponents because the rules allow for it. 

U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Stewart -- the only American to have been both a player (an enforcer at that) and referee in the NHL -- said of the Tkachuk situation that, just because an action is not specifically illegal under the Rule Book does not automatically make it a good hockey play or a clean one. 

That perfectly sums up my feelings on the play in question: Tkachuk running way out of position from above the goal line to hit Kassian -- who was just below the goal line, and tied up with another Calgary player -- and then, later, rocking him with a second somewhat similar hit was not the the type of play that most of us who have played the game consider a "fair game" hit. 

Look around the game. Former Flyers winger Scottie Upshall tweeted, "Coming down from your WING (as a winger) to hit a vulnerable guy on a wraparound is as DIRTY as it gets.... I know because I've done it, lots. I deserved a punch in the face too."

Others to issue similar comments include Jason Strudwick, Ray Ferraro, Corey Hirsch and Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne. If there have comments from within the hockey community defending Tkachuk's actions as legit hockey plays, I missed it. I'd also respectfully disagree, and would side with the aforementioned veterans of our sport.

 Now, I'm not here preaching barbarism. I don't think the way sports in general and the world in general has evolved that the message we should be sending to the youth of today is to annihilate an opponent every single time you get hit. That is not the point. 

In fact, over the last five years in the NHL, I've seen more guys respond to good clean hits by looking for a fight than I ever have at any other point since I've played and watched hockey. I don't agree with that, including when it's been done by Flyers players. Just because a hit is heavy or delivered in open ice does automatically mean a response is merited. 

The Kassian situation was a little different. The issue I take with this event was the fact that Kassian was targeted multiple times. I've seen a lot worse and more vicious hits but, the sheer distance that Tkachuk traveled each time in going out of his way to target a specific player is one where a response is to be expected. 

Players have to be able to stand up for themselves, and that's what Kassian did in response. No, Tkachuk was under no obligation to fight Kassian if he didn't want to, but all that Kassian should have gotten out of this was extra penalties and perhaps a game misconduct. Supplemental discipline, to me, was excessive.

In suspending Kassian, the "Aggressor Rule" was invoked. For those who don't know what that it, is the rule designed to prevent unsuspecting or defenseless non-combatants from being jumped and beaten down. Tkachuk may have turtled to avoid a fight and protect himself, but he was neither unsuspecting nor an innocent bystander.

Back what I played, Claude Lemieux might have been the most notorious player leaguewide for doing the sorts of things that Tkachuk did in this situation. He, too, used to take liberties and then turtle. I can't even imagine what Claude would have done if a precedent would have set whereby he could get an opponent who reacted like Kassian to be suspended. 

Who are we protecting here? Let's say that a Flyers player, Scott Hartnell, is engaged in a puck battle behind the net and an opposing winger takes similar liberties on him to the ones that Tkachuk took on Kassian. Can Scott not respond? Can a teammate, due to fear of instigator penalties and/or the aggressor rule, not step in for him? 

It's a legitimate worry for a team. Kassian received a two-game suspension. Really?! .The penalty was issued on the ice and it cost the Edmonton Oilers at the end of the night but if a big guy is going to take a run at another big guy and that 1 player decides he is going to take issue with it I have no problem with that at all, nor would 99 percent of my colleagues within the game. 

I like when hockey is emotional and spontaneous.I like when there's some animosity and bad blood. I like when games are physical. I think those games are the most fun to play, and to watch. On the flip side, I don't really like it when things are clearly calculated or premeditated. 

In our game nowaday, we no longer have guys like Bob Probert or Dave Brown to protect today's versions of Steve Yzerman or Mark Howe. That means that players either have to stand up for themselves or a teammate -- who may or may not know what he's doing in a fight -- stepping in for him. I do NOT see fewer cheapshots in the game nowadays. I see more of them. 

Sometimes there are gray areas. Earlier this season, when the Flyers played Ottawa in Philadelphia, there were several incidents of note. 

First, Mark Borowiecki hit Travis Konecny with a borderline late and borderline high hit. TK, by his own admission, was someone responsible by watching his own pass and leaving himself vulnerable but the primary onus is on the hitter. The late hit a week or two later by the Flyers' Joel Farabee on Winnipeg's Mathieu Perrault was only slightly later that the Borowiecki hit on Konecny, and actually delivered in a cleaner fashion. Farabee got suspended three games. Borowiecki got nothing. Both Konecny and Perrault sustained concussions.

Shortly thereafter, the Senators took issue with a hit at the Flyers blueline by Laughton; one which, quite honestly, would probably have annoyed the Flyers had it been the other way around. To his credit, Farabee stood up for his teammate and dropped the gloves. Now, it was very clear that Joel had never been in a fight before and didn't really know what to do. But he got full marks from his teammates for his willingness to stand up for Laughton. That resonates in the room.

Late in game, Laughton scored what proved to be the game winning goal, and chirped the Ottawa bench as he skated past; again, this is just part of the emotion of the game, and I blame neither Laughton for doing it nor the Senators for getting annoyed by it. 

With the Flyers leading by one goal, Ottawa's Brady Tkachuk -- yes, Matthew's brother, and a similar style player -- basically conceded the rest of the game by targeting Laughton for a cross-check where there's little or no protection. Was there intent to injure? I don't know. But was there disregard for the possibility of causing injury? Yes. 

That's a situation where a line was clearly crossed. An on-ice match penalty and perhaps supplementary discipline was in order. All that came out of it: a fine for cross-checking. 

These various different types of situations, in my opinion, underscore why players have to be able to stand up for themselves. The goal posts often seem to be moving on what is and is not allowed. I don't think it makes our game better, nor does it make our game safer.

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