The NHL wheel of justice spun Wednesday and landed on a three-game suspension for Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway.
To call it bad timing is an understatement. Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson at the tail end of a brawl in the final minute of the second period against the Anaheim Ducks Monday night.
Hathaway can’t play tonight against the New York Rangers. He will miss Saturday’s home game against Vancouver and next Wednesday’s road game against Florida. He will forfeit $24,193.53 of salary. His $1.5 million cap hit will remain on the books at a time when every dollar counts for the injured, cash-strapped Capitals.
It was a harsh penalty, one with little precedent in the NHL. It was also the right call. Spitting in someone’s face is gross. It’s wrong. On the streets of D.C. it could get you arrested for simple assault depending on the circumstances. Think that’s hyperbole? Go try it this weekend. See what happens when you get in an altercation and hock a loogie. I’m sure MPD will understand.
No one is arguing Hathaway head to a local police precinct for booking. If that were the case we’d have jails full of NHL players for post-scrum shenanigans. There’s a better way to stop that nonsense anyway: Supplemental discipline. That’s what happened here.
Hathaway accepted responsibility – even though he’d been sucker punched by Gudbranson while referee Peter MacDougall held the two menapart. His head snapped back. He was rightly furious.
It was a garbage play by Gudbranson, who had a hand free and took a shot. He was lucky to get away with a 10-minute misconduct. It should have been more. But you can’t spit in his face. Sorry. Hathaway himself said “it has no place” in the sport.
To his credit, Hathaway immediately talked with reporters after the Anaheim game and took responsibility, apologized. He’s a hard, respected player with no real disciplinary track record. He even addressed it all again at practice on Tuesday. That’s accountability to yourself and your teammates. It was admirable.
There’s no question Hathaway thinks Gudbranson is full of it for whining about getting spit upon given his cheap shot. There was an edge to Hathaway’s voice when he talked about the play, but that’s as far as he would go. No excuses. Not in public. Because you can’t spit on people.
Critics angry at an NHL disciplinary process rife with inconsistencies will harp on precedence. They have a legitimate point. Head shots go unpunished for one player, another gets the book thrown at him. Players are kneed, slashed, punched, slew-footed, boarded, charged and it’s a total guess sometimes how the Department of Player Safety comes to its decisions – even with videos giving narrated explanations. Sometimes it does feel like they write suspensions on a piece of paper, fold it up and spin the drum.
Capitals fans remember all too well Sidney Crosby spitting at Evgeny Kuznetsov in Game 3 of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoff series with the Penguins. It was a disgusting act deserving of punishment if you were wearing red and an eye roll if you were wearing black and gold.
But that’s mostly because for a day there it felt like we were in the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld (“Back and to the left!” “That is ONE magic loogie!”). The NHL took a hard pass on suspending its marquee star during one of the biggest playoff series in years.
This might have been morally wrong. It might have been a double standard. But if you have to break down a spitting incident like it’s the Zapruder film, you can probably just boo Crosby super loud next time he’s on the ice and move on. That’s basically what happened.
Meanwhile, Boston Bruins face licking specialist Brad Machand spent the better part of 2018 wiping his tongue across unsuspecting opponents to draw a retaliatory penalty because he’s a total lunatic. Why didn’t he get suspended?
Great point. He should have been. Let’s all go jump into the DeLorean and get him five games (Marchand was a repeat licker) for slurping Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan, who rightly argued there was no difference between that behavior and spitting.
That all happened during a 2018 Stanley Cup playoff series, too, so maybe the league was just reluctant to take out star players before an elimination game. Well, the NHL got that one wrong for sure. It finally told Marchand to stop…or else. But there were no real consequences.
Hathaway is probably paying the price for that warning now and it isn’t fair. He’s the one without a track record. He’s the one punched in the face. But when you spit, you lose the moral high ground. Is that harsh? Sure.
A two-game suspension seemed right and I doubt the Ducks would have kicked up much fuss over one. Bu if you’re arguing for nothing, or a simple fine, you’re a fan going full fanatic. Hockey discipline is sometimes a cruel joke. The over-the-top reactions to those decisions are also comically tribal. Both those things can be true. Hathaway and the Capitals will be fine. The next spitting incident just better match this punishment.
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