Damien Cox: NHL treats health and safety of its players as secondary so we’ll see more incidents like Mark Scheifele’s hit on Jack Evans

Of course it was ridiculous. Of course, it was outrageous.

It’s always ridiculous. It’s always outrageous.

Unless, of course, it’s your teammate who crossed the line. Or a player on the team you support. Or a player you need as a coach.

Then there are always mitigating circumstances. Or a harkening back to tougher times, when Scott Stevens used to do this kind of thing every other shift.

You will hear all of these things, and more, today as hockey digests its latest assault. This was a completely unnecessary and gratuitous bodycheck by Winnipeg Jets star centre Mark Scheifele on Montreal forward Jake Evans that appeared to knock Evans unconscious near the end of Game 1 of the second round series between the two teams on Wednesday night.

If anything, that’s what makes this incident a little different. It’s one of the best offensive players in the sport being called on the carpet today to answer for what he did. Usually it’s the Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilsons, the enforcers, in trouble.

Schiefele, 28, is a Kitchener lad who was ninth in NHL scoring this season, one point behind Nathan MacKinnon, one point ahead of Sidney Crosby. He’s Winnipeg’s best skater, and would be the team’s best player if not for goalie Conner Hellebuyck. He makes $ 6.125 million per season.

Evans, on the other hand, is a 25-year-old native of Etobicoke who attended the University of Notre Dame on a hockey scholarship. Compared to Scheifele, he’s a fringe player, a third- or fourth-line player who makes $ 750,000. If he’s lost for the rest of this series, the Canadiens, who won Game 1, won’t be terribly impacted.

Scheifele’s suspension, when it comes, could change the entire series.

The only things that should matter, of course, is that Evans is OK, that his family can feel relieved after having to witness that ugliness, and that a strong, clear statement should be made by the NHL that such an event should never, ever happen again on one of its rinks. Scheifele should suffer significant consequences that would convince him that his behaviour isn’t tolerated.

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele hits Montreal Canadiens' Jake Evans (71) after he scored an empty net goal in the NHL playoffs in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

But that won’t happen. Oh sure, Scheifele will be banned for some period of time. The hearing he’s been offered is by phone, not in person, so the suspension will be five games or less. This won’t quiet the baying hounds in Montreal, who already want you to believe this hit is just as bad or worse than Zdeno Chara running Max Pacioretty into the stanchion a decade ago.

Winnipeg, or the NHL Players’ Association, will probably try to appeal whatever ruling the worst disciplinarian in the history of the league, George Parros, delivers. Soon, Evans’ health will become a secondary matter to “how will Winnipeg adjust without Mark Schiefele?”

Two weeks ago Colorado’s Nazem Kadri, a multiple offender, was suspended eight games for a dangerous hit on Justin Faulk of the St. Louis Blues. Kadri has four games left to serve. Colorado has a 2-0 series lead on Vegas, so Kadri will either be back this series or next, if the Avs move on.

And Faulk? The Blues have been eliminated. Do you ever hear of him, or how he’s recovering? Is it ever mentioned on Hockey Night in Canada?

In the case of Scheifele on Evans, the Jets centre was some ticked off at how the game had gone. His team was losing, and he had been sent off for roughing late in the third period after being roughed himself in front of the Montreal net, the kind of ridiculous officiating call NHL fans have just learned to accept night after night.

Scheifele, still steaming, got back out on the ice, and with Hellebuyck removed for an extra attacker, he and the other Jets were helpless to stop Evans from scoring into an empty net. So Scheifele let his frustration speak for itself. At full speed, he crashed into Evans, all elbows and shoulders and knees, and sent the smaller player spinning to the ice. And then Evans lay there, face down and motionless.

Hockey being hockey, a melee then ensued. Only the quick thinking of Winnipeg’s Nik Ehlers saved further injury to Evans, Ehlers crouched over the prone Montreal player while the other players looked for retribution or fights.

After the game, Montreal players and coach Dominique Ducharme had the usual inflammatory quotes about the incident. But if it had been a Habs player knocking out a Jets player? Montreal players would have said nothing. Or that their player was “just finishing his check.” That’s how it always is, which leaves the players who call for league sanctions looking like they are just looking for a competitive advantage.

Back in 2019, star Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped the helmet off the head of Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph and then hit him with it. The league suspended Garrett for the rest of the regular season and playoffs even though Rudolph was not injured. The NFL is certainly not perfect, but there haven’t been any helmet swinging incidents since.

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The difference is Gary Bettman and his owners don’t have the confidence of the NFL. They don’t want to eliminate gratuitous violence or fighting or they would have done so years ago. They believe it sells, or more accurately, are too timid to try to sell professional hockey without those elements.

So it doesn’t matter how many games Scheifele gets. It doesn’t matter because there will always be a next incident. It doesn’t matter because the injured party, whether it’s Faulk or Evans, are treated like their health and safety as NHL players is a secondary consideration, rather than a priority.

Scheifele might wish today he hadn’t whacked Evans, but he did what he did because he knew the NHL tacitly supports such actions and never puts the interests of the victims ahead of the perpetrators. He’s seen others punished lightly for similar nonsense his entire career, so there was no stop signal flashing in his mind when he targeted Evans.

In the end, we are left with a pointlessly injured young athlete, and no belief that justice will be served or the game will change for the better.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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