Saturday January 11th’s Battle of Alberta was, as always, a heated and competitive spectacle. However, Oilers’ Zack Kassian and Flames’ Mathew Tkatchuk stole the show.
Mathew Tkatchuk, leading goal scorer for the Flames, took it upon himself to target the Oilers’ Zack Kassian and laid two massive predatory hits. The predatory nature of the hits are due to the fact that Tkatchuk, a winger, dropped out of position and went into the corner to deliver a hit to Kassian on two different occasions, as well both hits made contact with Kassian’s head. In an attempt to stand up for himself, after the second hit Kassian dropped the gloves and started to punch an unwilling Tkatchuk. Tkatchuk’s hits were called legal and he went unpenalized, however, Kassian was given a double minor for roughing and a 10 minute misconduct for being the aggressor in the situation. Shortly after the altercation, the Flames scored the game winner on the power play and took first place in the Pacific division. Kassian was scheduled for a hearing shortly after.
The NHL Department of Player Safety deemed both of Tkatchuk’s hits legal and therefore, he did not receive penalties or a hearing. Many Oiler’s teammates have been quick to call the hits dirty and predatory. In an interview, Oilers’ James Neal commented, “no one wants to see those hits, those hits have been gone out of the game for a long time.” Neal also spoke to the way Tkatchuk clearly targeted Kassian and specifically his head. Many other players interviewed spoke to the unwritten rule that when players throw hits like that they’re asking for a fight and every once in a while have to be prepared for one. In another interview when asked what he would do if he had to play in a 3 on 3 at the NHL All-Star Game, Oiler’s leading goal scorer Leon Draisaitl said he would “Probably get off the ice.”
Kassian will receive a two game suspension but will return in time for the back to back showdown against the Flames on January 29th and February 1st. Despite the Department of Player Safety deeming Tkatchuk’s hits as legal full body checks delivered to a player carrying the puck, this altercation has raised some major questions about the Aggressor Rule and what is a clean hit in the NHL as well as what are the real morals behind fighting as an essential part of the game. Sportsnet’s Tim and Syd spoke to the fact that had those hits been laid on someone like Connor McDavid or Johnny Gaudreau, penalities and easily a five game suspension would have ensued. They also highlighted the fact that Kassian was standing up for himself, and they hoped he would have done the same thing had those hits been laid on another player. As well, they spoke to the “what if” situation that it would have been an even bigger issue if Tkatcuk had hit his head on the ice without his helmet on when Kassian was rag-dolling him. Despite many considering body checking and fighting an necessary part of the game the debate on legal and illegal hits as well as if body checking should still be allowed in hockey has long been in conversations and this altercation can be another reason for consideration. As well the role that fighting plays in hockey has also been long debated. Many also view fighting as an integral part of the game that allows players to protect others, like the Connor McDavids and the Johnny Gaudreaus of the game.