The rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames has always been epic—even when one (or both) of the teams hasn’t been. But last night’s collision in Calgary between the two Alberta clubs took tensions to a level unseen in years. Perhaps decades. While the Flames won the game on the scoreboard (by a score of 4-3), the Oilers may have won an even bigger battle when Zack Kassian absolutely demolished Matthew Tkachuk with a good, old-fashioned ass-whoopin. The problem? Now Kassian faces supplementary discipline from the National Hockey League for his part in the skirmish.

The incident took place late in the second period with the game tied at three. After Tkachuk took one of his typical (and dangerous) blind-side runs at the Oilers’ right winger—nearly removing his head in the process, Kassian took exception and evened the score in a manner reminiscent of a pit bull mauling a rabbit. It was actually Tkachuk’s second dirty hit on Kassian in the game (the first, a vicious and even more dangerous head shot, occurred mid-way through the first period), and he deserved every bit of what Kassian gave him!

For a player in just his fourth pro year, Tkachuk has done a fine job of making enemies throughout the league. Not only did he receive three separate suspensions before even playing 100 professional games, but he’s also committed umpteen dirty hits and dangerous stick infractions thus far in his brief career. He’s also currently engaged in a number of ongoing feuds with other players around the league (including a whopper with Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty that has boiled over on multiple occasions).

Of course, most of Tkachuk’s shenanigans would not be a problem at all were he more willing to regularly back up his handy work by dropping the gloves and, win or lose, immediately paying the piper. However, all too often Tkachuk refuses to follow through with a fight after going out of his way to pick one. He has had a handful of fights to this point in his career, but more often than not he prefers to dodge fights rather than engage in them—particularly when the opponent is a 6-foot-3, 211 pounder like Kassian. As a 6-foot-2, 200+ pound player himself, that seems rather cowardly to me.

For his part, Kassian is already looking forward to his next opportunity to face Tkachuk on January 29th when the Oilers and Flames meet once again in Edmonton. Of course, he’s not exactly confident that Tkachuk will do the honourable thing and actually drop the gloves this time around: “It’s going to be one of those games where I know he’s not going to fight.”

Like many other players around the league (particularly the tough guys and enforcers), Kassian sees Tkachuk as someone who refuses to follow the unwritten rules of the game—basically a punk who needs to learn the age-old hockey code. And I completely agree.

But the real issue here is that now Kassian faces disciplinary action for merely giving Tkachuk exactly what he asked for, and that is a problem indeed! If Kassian receives a suspension for his part in the skirmish, that will be an injustice and a very poor decision on the part of the NHL. If anyone deserves a suspension here, it’s Tkachuk, but I believe that the best course of action would simply be to allow the punishments that were doled out in the game to be the only penalties assessed. While Tkachuk was penalized for neither of his viscous head shots during the game (itself a gross oversight), Kassian received a double minor for roughing as well as a 10 minute misconduct for being the aggressor in the altercation.

Unfortunately, ever since Gary Bettman came onto the scene as league Commissioner in 1993, he’s seemed to be on a quest to turn the NHL into a senior’s beer league with no hitting, no fighting, and no physicality whatsoever.

Sure, the league has a serious concussion problem going back decades, but most of those issues are not the result of fighting. Many of them occur when players engage in headhunting and dirty hitting—activities that are discouraged when players are given the leeway to police themselves.

And it’s not like players are forced to fight either. Those who don’t want to fight don’t have to fight, but they better keep their noses clean and avoid some of the other dirty work if they wish to be respected in that decision.

Where I and many others take issue is when a headhunter like Tkachuk is protected from fighting by the league. If Kassian is suspended for defending himself against a questionable hit, the league is essentially endorsing Tkachuk’s hit-and-run behaviour. And as long as players like him are permitted to engage in borderline or illegal activity without having to answer for their actions on the ice, the headhunting will only continue and the league’s concussion problems will persist.

My position is this: don’t try to remove fighting from the game, don’t try to further soften the league and its players by punishing acts of justice, and allow the players stand up for themselves and defend (or pay for) their own choices and actions. It’s called good, old-time hockey, and it’s the greatest game on Earth. Stop messing with it!

_____

Update: Zack Kassian has been suspended two games by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for his role as the “aggressor” in the Saturday night incident with Matthew Tkachuk—an infraction for which he will forfeit $20,967.74 in salary. An absolute joke if you ask me! Hear some more of my thoughts in the embedded video below:

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