On Chara vs. Kane, rule 48.1 and 'vulnerable positions'

Some suspension decisions are easier than others. This one was difficult. What saved Chara was Kane's split-second change in body position before impact.
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Chara Kane

The jury of social media will always spin yarns about the lack of consistency at NHL Department of Player Safety and the idea that senior vice-president George Parros flips a coin when making decisions. If you take the time to study the rulebook and understand how the league compares similar types of plays to each other to make decisions, you'll actually find a lot of consistency, far more than the department gets credit for.

But sometimes, the DOPS gets saddled with a bang-bang play so difficult to evaluate that it may as well indeed flip a coin. Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara's hit on San Jose Sharks left winger Evander Kane Tuesday falls in that category. Kane took a shoulder to the face and was angered enough to deliberately fight hockey's equivalent of Gregor 'The Mountain' Clegane. The infraction in question when deciding whether Chara deserved supplemental discipline was Rule 48.1, illegal check to the head. Repeat offenses or an injury to Kane would only be taken into consideration for lengthening a punishment if the play was deemed illegal. Otherwise, they're irrelevant. In the end, the news broke Wednesday morning Chara would receive no hearing. So did he really not violate rule 48.1? Here's the full definition:

"A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted. In determining whether contact with an opponent's head was avoidable, the circumstances of the hit including the following shall be considered:

(i) Whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent’s body and the head was not "picked" as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach, or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.

(ii) Whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.

Now, let's look at the hit:

Chara seems close to committing the sin outlined in (i). Kane's head eats the brunt of the impact, though Chara's skates-on-the-ice posture indicates he's attempting a full-body hit, helping his case. The head is the principal point of contact. Does that make the play an open-and-shut case for suspension? Not so fast. What about condition (ii)? Does Kane assume a posture that makes head contact unavoidable? He lunges for the puck, ducking his head downward and into the line of fire in the process. The above clip makes it look like Chara has time to change his trajectory and save Kane's noggin, but it's always dangerous to cherrypick slo-mo footage. Watch it again at full speed (1:11 mark):

It's a half-second between Kane lunging forward and Chara colliding with him. There isn't too much time for Chara to adjust. That said, there also isn't no time, and the league had to consider that the two had been engaging in an escalating battle throughout the game. Narrative does matter when evaluating a perpetrator's intent.

But, really, deciding whether to suspend Chara came down to that tiny gap between Kane bending down and Chara tagging Kane's skull. This was a tough one, and the DOPS was guaranteed to inflame one fan base or the other regardless of what it decided. It truly was a coin flip. That's an unenviable position. Kane may think the DOPS is the Three Blind Mice, but it was Kane putting himself in a vulnerable position that saved Chara's bacon.

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