Ben Eager and discipline consistency – Why the league got it right

With the recent suspension of Atlanta Thrashers forward Ben Eager, NHLHS Thrashers correspondent Laura Astorian goes over the recent wave of suspensions in the NHL.

The NHL and Colin Campbell are often criticized for how the choose to dole out discipline. Myself, I tend to think of the old Animaniacs sketch:

Wheel of Morality, turn turn turn… tell us the lesson that we must learn.

There have been quite the rash of sucker punches and head hits recently for whatever reason. The three that stand out in my mind are the Bosto Bruins’ forward Milan Lucic suckerpunch of Thrashers’ defenseman Freddy Meyer, Ben Eager’s suckerpunch of  Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Colby Armstrong, and Calgary Flames’ Tom Kostopoulos‘ breaking of Detroit Red Wings Brad Stuart’s jaw. The three incidents are different and each got drastically different punishments, but they stick out to me due to the variance of the punishments.

Lucic’s hit on Meyer that started this line brawl came immediately after Meyer hit Lucic in a way that Lucic felt was inappropriate at best:

Milan Lucic hit on Freddy Meyer

Basically, it was immediate cause and effect. Looch didn’t like what Meyer did, so he took off his glove and bopped him one. Not the most appropriate response, but a $2500 fine with no suspension for what amounted to a snap reaction isn’t wrong. Granted, the amount of the fine could have been a bit more, because $2500 is about 10 seconds of ice time for him, but the thought’s ok.

What makes Eager’s decision to hit Armstrong different from Lucic’s is about three-fold. Firstly, the hits that Armstrong placed on Bryan Little and Richard Peverley were about ten minutes prior to Eager’s punch on Armstrong, not on Eager himself and not immediately before the hit. Secondly, Eager ran at Armstrong (as you can see from the video) right before the scrum broke out. Finally, Eager hit Armstrong with his glove on and his stick still in his hand, which is probably worse than hitting someone clean-fisted.

Eager tried to compare what he did with Lucic, and he bemoaned his punishment:

“I’m surprised in one way, but there is no parity in these suspensions that are handed out,” Eager said Saturday. “The last two incidents I’ve seen, they knocked a guy out with no glove on and get no fine. The Lucic incident, he suckers a guy who’s not even looking, with no glove on, and he gets fined $2,500. Then Jody Shelley does the same thing to a guy who is watching and he gets two games. I get four [games] somehow for hitting a guy with my glove on, that is looking right in my face. We are looking eye to eye.  I guess [NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell] wanted a quiet weekend. He didn’t want the Toronto media calling him all weekend. He did what he had to do.

It is what it is. It’s four games. I will deal with it and move on.”

The difference here, aside from the obvious pre-meditation of Eager’s hit, is that Eager has been suspended twice before – technically he might be a “first offender” since both suspensions are more than eighteen months ago, but you can’t tell me that they didn’t influence Campbell’s decision. He has already been suspended by the league once for three games in 2009 for a hit on Edmonton’s Liam Reddox. Earlier in 2008, he was suspended for three games for swinging his stick at Sean Avery as Avery skated by. Eager was seated on the bench at the time.

It’s not Eager’s fault that the Thrashers lost Friday night, but I get infuriated when someone does something ignorant that puts that team in the spotlight in a very negative way. I don’t want players getting suspended for things that they should know better for.

I called Colby Armstrong out on this last season when he nailed Mathieu Perrault in the head with an elbow on purpose. I was especially upset about that because Atlanta was fighting to get into the playoffs; I guess at least Eager took himself out of the game against Toronto, which is completely not the same thing.

The same night that Eager pulled his stunt, Kostopolous crushed Brad Stuart (warning: blood is visible). Stuart’s out for probably six to eight weeks with a broken jaw, and Kostopolous is out six games. Oddly, he was only assessed a two minute roughing penalty, but what he did was certainly a lot less clear than what Eager did, and needed to be reviewed by video before supplemental discipline was handed down.

Of course, the injury played into the suspension, and the fact that a headshot while travelling quickly on skates is certainly more injurious than suckerpunching someone with a glove on. Six games is about right for Kostopolous, and four games is about right for Eager.

If the league wants to take premeditation into consideration, you can’t get much more premeditative than what Eager did.