NHL Goes PC: 'Hey Buddy' Pass Nets Stupid Suspension
What was Eric Gryba supposed to do? Wave as Lars Eller flew by him?
Gryba's open-ice crash into the Montréal Canadiens' center resulted in the sort of wreck that can occur in the world's fastest team sport. Not only that, but it came during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is the ultimate personnification of intensity in competition.
The Habs were clearing the puck from their own zone in a breakout formation that is deployed 90% of the time when a team gains possession and transitions to offense. The onus is on the player making the first pass to see that his teammate is imminently clear of the defense and then lead him appropriately to he can receive the puck on the move. The pass usually comes from the mid-boards and is directed toward center ice.
In this instance, in the middle of a tight game between two teams who aren't necessarily fond of each other in any event, Canadiens' defenseman Raphael Diaz routinely swept the puck to where a breaking center is supposed to be. He clearly neglected to assess the scenario and, frankly, Eller unwisely had his head down.
Hockey players call this a "Hey, Buddy!" pass. Think of it as the game's version of a "Lookout!" block in football or some sort of "You could have gotten us all killed!" misadventure in combat.
It's that careless of a mistake.
Gryba slammed into Eller so hard that the clean check cooled him instantly. Eller had to be taken from the ice on a stretcher, suffered a concussion, dental damage, and unspecified facial fractures. He went straight to the hospital for observation. So, yes, the collision caused a major injury.
Here's Gryba's account:
"I stepped up to make a hit. I kept my shoulder down. He received the puck by the time I hit him. I saw the replay. My elbow was down and there was no intent to hurt him whatsoever and I hope that he's OK. I'm not out here to hurt anybody and it's never good to seeing anything like that. I hope he makes a full and speedy recovery."
Unlike, say, a Matt Cooke, Gryba is not known as a headhunter. Video replay shows his account to be accurate. He got the interference call because the referee felt he had to call something when Eller crumbled to the ice. He got the game misconduct because Eller was unconscious and the referee felt he had to call something else.
Here's the NHL's whitewashing:
"We do not see malicious intent by Gryba on this play. Eller is eligible to be checked and Gryba does not extend an elbow or launch into the head. However, Gryba's route is not correct, and we do not feel that he made enough of a full-body check not to qualify as an illegal check to the head."
What do they mean his route is not correct? Is Gryba a defenseman or a pickpocket? How else was he supposed to stop what would have been an odd-man rush if Eller had received the puck at full speed and kept going? The only 'odds' after that would be Gryba's prospects of being benched.
It's Diaz who should have been benched. That sort of carelessness not only creates dangerous situations, it creates turnovers that lose playoff games. The Habs and the league office can say whatever they want to absolve him of blame, but hockey players know differently. The next time Diaz attempts a first pass, do know his centers won't be at full speed on their way out of the defensive zone; it's going to take some time for anyone to trust him again.
Gryba received a two-game suspension. Given a best-of-seven series in progress, that's harsh. But it is politically correct. As they say, political correctness is tyranny with manners, and with the NHL continually striving to distance itself from the dumbest work stoppage in North American sports history, sensitivity trumps sensation.
In the lightning-quick terrain of playoff hockey, lost time means lost opportunities, which in turn can mean lost games. In the playoffs, that can mean early exits.
The first-round series is now tied at 1-1. Gryba will miss one more game before he can return, and when he does, Ottawa's blueline rotation will be back to normal. Eller's return this season is questionable. Montréal's offensive rotation will not be what they expected.
Montréal finesse may now get more space, and if so, the Canadiens will owe it to their defenseman who served up his own center as a sacrifice.