It was a nasty game between the Belfast Giants and the Sheffield Steelers on Sunday night in the U.K.'s Elite Ice Hockey League, and that nastiness manifested in one of the most stunning displays of violence in the young season -- and one of the most controversial decisions by a hockey league's player safety department.
Defenseman Spiro Goulakos of the Giants, who had already been given a 10-minute misconduct penalty for a hit from behind earlier in the game, laid out Steelers forward Colton Fretter (a 2002 draft pick of the late, not-so-great NHL Atlanta Thrashers) with a nasty check along the boards in the third period. There was no penalty called on the play.
Fretter got up and immediately charged after Goulakos as he stood, oblivious, near the red line. Fretter jumped into the air and -- in shades of the infamous hit that then-Vancouver Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi made on Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore in 2004 -- drove his forearm into the back of Goulakos' head in an act of revenge.
"It's one of the most vicious attacks from behind I've ever seen," said Belfast coach Adam Keefe. "There's certainly no spot in the game for that."
Fretter dropped his gloves and started to go after his fallen foe, but Goulakos put his legs in the air in self defense, at one point kicking Fretter away from him.
One problem: This is hockey, and Goulakos is basically wearing knives on his feet.
So both the hit and the reaction were put before the EIHL department of player safety officials, and they returned with a rather baffling verdict: Fretter, who skated halfway down the rink to deliver a leaping blow to the head of an opponent, was suspended for one game, which was already mandatory by virtue of the match penalty he received. Goulakos, who put up his skates to prevent Fretter from pummeling him with his bare hands after that hit from behind, was also automatically suspended for a game after receiving a match penalty for kicking ... but then received two additional games from the league.
Here's their explanation of the Fretter suspension.
And here's the Goulakos one.
Now, how on earth is this logical?
Well, it's "hockey logical."
There's still a certain amount of frontier justice inherent within departments of player safety, be it in the NHL or EIHL. On a play like this, there's no doubt that the initial, non-penalized hit on Fretter that sparked the incident was taken into account.
So was the fact that Fretter apparently has a target on his back in the league. He's an offensive player, usually the guy getting hit rather than hitting. He scored 26 goals in 48 games last season for Sheffield, with 27 penalty minutes.
"I think that's the fifth time Fretter's been hit in the numbers, into the boards, and he snapped," said Steelers coach Paul Thompson, via the BBC.
There's also an unspoken standard in player safety regarding anything used to harm another opponent other than one's fists. Note that Fretter dropped his stick before blindsiding Goulakos.
Look at the longest suspensions in hockey history, and you'll see many of them resulted from an illegal use of the stick. You'll also notice that one of them -- New York Islanders winger Chris Simon's 30-game suspension in 2007 for kicking Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jarkko Ruutu -- involved a skate stomp. That brings us to this incident: a hit from behind without a stick involved gets one game; a guy using his skate blade to fend off an opponent gets three.
Again, this is "hockey logic," which is why "hockey logic" is dumb.
We can all see why Fretter snapped, and there are think pieces written that justify it. But the idea that this deliberate, violent and forceful act of retribution gets a single game (already mandated by the match penalty), or triple what the victim gets for self defense, is an astoundingly bad look for the EIHL and the sport itself.