TORONTO - Windsor Spitfires forward Zack Kassian has been suspended 20 games for a vicious hit to the head of an opponent, receiving the first of what is expected to be two serious penalties for reckless play in junior hockey this month.
Kassian appeared to leave his feet an instant before he collided violently with Barrie Colts forward Matt Kennedy in a game Jan 14. Kassian was assessed a five-minute penalty for charging and a game misconduct - while Kennedy was left with stitches and a concussion.
In its ruling, the Ontario Hockey League concluded that Kassian did not leave his feet before the hit.
"It is the position of the league that player Zack Kassian checked the unsuspecting Barrie player while such player was in a vulnerable position without having been in the possession of the puck," OHL commissioner David Branch said in a release Thursday.
"Players must understand that they shall be held accountable for their actions and we must continue to work to improve the level of respect players have towards opposing players."
Kassian, who was selected by the Buffalo Sabres 13th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, was playing in his first game with the Spitfires after being acquired from the Peterborough Petes.
Spitfires head coach and team president Bob Boughner was disappointed with the severity of the suspension.
"I'm shocked that Zack received 20 games," Boughner said after Windsor's 2-1 OHL win over Brampton on Thursday. "I thought it was a pretty steep penalty, especially after the presentation the organization made to the league. You can agree or disagree with the decision, but at this point there is nothing that we can do about it.
"I think that maybe we have to talk a little more about educating the players. For me, some of the suspensions that have been given out over time - the elbowings to the head and the hittings from behind - are a lot more dangerous than an open-ice hit."
Kennedy, meanwhile, is reportedly considering retirement because it is believed the latest concussion is the fifth of his career.
Kassian's suspension is expected to be followed by another harsh penalty on Monday, when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will render a decision on the future of Rouyn-Noranda centre Patrice Cormier, who sent a rival player to hospital with an elbow to the head.
Mikael Tam, an 18-year-old defenceman with the Quebec Remparts, went into convulsions on the ice after Cormier blindsided him with an elbow to his face on Sunday. Cormier, the Canadian captain at the recent world junior hockey championship, was suspended indefinitely.
"I'll leave it to the league to make the fairest decision," Remparts coach Patrick Roy said earlier this week.
"I have confidence in our league. Clearly, we're expecting a very severe sanction."