By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I’ve seen athletes use flying elbows for “protection” before.
But such maneuvers were executed by men in tights in the squared circle during the late Friday nights and early Saturday mornings of my youth, by high-caliber athletes who were nonetheless competing in a sport (much the chagrin of many of my readers) that was fixed.
Brad Marchand is not a modern-day Ted DiBiase or SD Jones. The Bruins left wing has improved his game to the point where he’s more often compared to the great goal scorers of the franchise’s history, including Wayne Cashman and Johnny Bucyk, more than the original Rat, Ken Linseman. However, we’ve once again witnessed another incident that would make a rodent shy away from being compared to Marchand.
Marchand’s flying elbow at New Jersey’s Marcus Johansson near the end of the Bruins’ 3-2 win at TD Garden on Tuesday was exactly what the NHL Department of Player Safety said it was during its explanation of its five-game suspension ruling: an egregious elbow to the head that didn’t look anything like a player protecting himself. The self-defense excuse was used by Marchand in his hearing, according to DOPS, and by coach Bruce Cassidy on Wednesday morning.
“Especially this year, I thought he took some severe hits in vulnerable spots,” Cassidy said. “And [we’ve had] a discussion, it’s that Brad puts himself in harm’s way because he has the puck so often. He’s a top-end player for us so he’s going to take hits, so he will have to protect himself in those situations. And I believe he did that last night. The one thing I will say watching it, I don’t think there’s any intent. I don’t think he had any clue which player was coming. He had his head down and I think he was just preparing to get hit so he was going to protect himself from a hit. That part of it is not unique to Brad, I think that’s not unique to most players that want to do that, especially in the high-traffic areas.”
Well now we know how far one of the most transparent and insightful coaches will go to protect his own player. Good for Cassidy. We also know that even if one is inclined to give Marchand the benefit of the doubt here, why would the DOPS even consider it? Previously Marchand was suspended five times, fined three times and reprimanded countless times because not every chat gets publicized.
After Marchand received supplementary discipline in the past, coach Claude Julien (at least publicly) would talk about the discipline line and how Marchand had to learn how to better stay on the right side of it. Let’s hope for the Bruins’ sake Cassidy is having the same discussion with Marchand despite the coach’s public proclamations.
But this isn’t about whether Marchand should’ve been suspended, whether five games was the right length of suspension or what this suspension means for the Bruins in their attempt to overtake the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference or Marchand’s pursuit of a 100-point season.
It seems to me what’s being overlooked here is the dangerousness of the action itself. Done with intent or not, Marchand elbowed Johansson in the head and there’s no telling what the ramifications of that will be. In the same week that former Bruins center Marc Savard announced his retirement, seven years after his career was ended because of concussion problems, everyone involved in his incident on the Bruins’ side should be repentant and the entire sport should be hopeful Johansson doesn’t become another concussion statistic.
Regardless of what Marchand was trying to do, there’s no excuse for nailing an opponent in the head. An elbow to the chest or gut would’ve done the job to avoid getting clobbered in front of the net. A hit to the head is dangerous regardless of the hit.
Johansson missed time with a concussion earlier this season. What if he’s never the same? What if the roles were reversed and an opponent introduced Marchand’s head to an elbow and wrote it off as self-defense? The Bruins were lucky Patrice Bergeron was able to come back from concussions; they had the opposite experience with Savard. Perhaps Marchand would recover fine or maybe he’d be on a different career path depending on his body’s response.
It doesn’t matter that Marchand’s going to miss five games. He’s still going to score 30 goals again, and the Bruins are going to make the playoffs and might even make a run to late May. Marchand’s never going to learn his lesson about respecting his opponents more. We just have to hope that Marchand’s line-crossing doesn’t venture into Matt Cooke territory and he doesn’t alter another player’s career trajectory. We have to hope that he doesn’t get a dose of his own medicine someday and have his career veer of course. And we have to hope that at some point everyone will come to terms with the idea that these types of hits are unacceptable regardless of what sweater the perpetrator wears.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.