Yousuf: If Matt Dumba’s hit on the Stars’ Joe Pavelski is legal, it’s time to adjust the rules

DALLAS – As Joe Pavelski stood motionless behind the Wild net in the second period of the Stars’ 3-2 double-overtime loss in Game 1 on Monday night, two moments crossed my mind.

First, April 23, 2019. In an image that looked suspiciously similar, Pavelski, then with the San Jose Sharks, stood motionless on the ice in the first round of the 2019 playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights, a mare of blood forming on the ice around his head.

Second, Dec. 18, 2021. Joe Pavelski stood on the podium at the American Airlines Center, unable to hold back tears as he tried to answer a question about a hit by Dallas teammate Tanner Kero against the Blackhawks from Chicago.

As those moments briefly resurfaced, Pavelski, still on the ice, slowly began to move. Finally, he stood up. With a Stars staffer to his left and Mason Marchment to his right, Pavelski gingerly walked to the Stars bench. He didn’t stop there; Pavelski went straight down the tunnel and did not come back into the game.

“Joe is fine,” Stars head coach Pete DeBoer said after the game.

When asked if OK meant he was confident in Pavelski’s status for Game 2, DeBoer was clear.

“No, I’m not confident for Game 2,” DeBoer said. “He’s fine, (like) he’s ‘walking off the ice on his own’ OK.”

In describing these moments, I’m not drawing comparisons between Dumba’s hit on Pavelski on Monday and Cody Eakin’s cross-check on Pavelski in 2019 or Brett Connolly’s hit on Kero in 2021. They were all different in nature, so what circumstances. The common thread they share is the sobering image of a man lying on the ice with a serious head injury.

On Monday, officials first called Dumba for a five-minute major, which gave them the opportunity to review the game. Ironically, their ability to do so came from a rule that was put in place after Eakin’s hit on Pavelski in 2019. Eakin received a major penalty and a game misconduct. The Sharks scored four goals in the minutes that followed to come back from a 3-0 deficit and win Game 7 5-4 in overtime. The league issued an apology to the Golden Knights, saying Eakin’s offense did not warrant a major, but there was no way to review the appeal at the time. In Pavelski’s first comments on that move a few weeks later, he agreed.

“I have no problem with this game”, Pavelski said in May 2019. “Was it a five-minute major? No. Was I glad they called it that? Fuck yeah.

After watching Dumba’s hit on Pavelski, officials overruled the major and assigned Dumba a two-minute minor for brutality. Max Domi, who admitted he hadn’t seen the shot himself, lunged at Dumba in reaction to seeing Pavelski lying on the ice the way he looked.

“One of your best players goes down like that, that’s hockey,” Domi said of his decision to fight Dumba. “Hope (Joe) is fine…I saw Joe laying there and you never want to see a teammate, especially a guy like that, over there.”

Domi also received two minutes for brutality and a 10-minute misconduct. In total, when the game resumed, it was two minutes of four against four and then back to normal.

“You never want to see that, I don’t care who you play against,” Wild head coach Dean Evason said. “You don’t want to see anyone get hurt. I’m glad we have a video review because it looks like he hits him in the head but obviously if you watch it the stick hits him. Obviously, we think they got it right, but you still don’t want to see someone lying on the ice like that.

Stars head coach Pete DeBoer, who was the Sharks head coach in 2019 when Eakin cross-checked Pavelski, also deferred to the review.

“We have the best officials in the world,” DeBoer said. “They called a five, they saw it again, which is the right thing to do. If they looked at it and decided it wasn’t a bad move, then I guess that’s not for me to argue with that. They had to look at it from several different angles and that’s the decision they made.

It should be noted that over the weekend, DeBoer was asked if he, as head coach, could manage a team’s emotions to have a long playoff run.

“As a coach, you can set the table a bit with that with the way you handle situations,” DeBoer said.

He recalled a lesson he learned in the 2019 playoffs as head coach of the Sharks. He recalled when his Sharks were tied 1-1 in a series with the Blues and in Game 3 the Sharks won in overtime on a controversial goal when the referees missed a pass from Erik Karlsson .

“I remember watching (Blues head coach) Craig Berube, how he handled that situation,” DeBoer said. “If he had gone off the rails, maybe his team would go off the rails. He was so consistent and calm in his messages about it to prepare for the next game and the next game and not dwell on it. His team, I thought, worked on his reaction. They ended up beating us and winning the Stanley Cup against Boston that year. I thought that was a key moment.

Maybe DeBoer feels really happy with the decision made by the officials. Maybe he’s playing it cool publicly to make sure his team stays calm, like he saw Berube do four years ago. Either way, DeBoer took the right stance when questioned after the game, especially after seeing how emotional it was for the Stars in the reaction of Domi and others.

For his part, Dumba also felt it was a hit and was confident the officials would see it that way too – shoulder to shoulder, ending his miss. Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger disagreed.

“From what I saw, it looked like a major penalty,” Oettinger said. “I’m going to (re)watch it and I don’t think my opinion will change. It’s hard, you lose your boss like that, a guy we need, for a low blow like that. It’s hard. I hope he’s not hurt too much and we can use that as motivation to help each other out.

Opinions on Dumba’s hit on Pavelski were polarized. Two respected former NHL players when the game was broadcast have signed. Wild fans certainly agreed with this assessment. The stars’ fans, for the most part, disagreed.

“You hate to see players get injured, but that’s part of the game,” former star defender PK Subban told ESPN.

GOOD. Maybe that move is part of the game. If it is, it shouldn’t be.

Before we even get to the body parts involved, there is no doubt that Dumba’s blow was late and entirely preventable. Pavelski got rid of the puck and it is already clearly far from Pavelski. Below you can see that even after Pavelski gets rid of the puck, Dumba is in a crouched position.

For those who say he was just “finishing his check”, Dumba didn’t even begin it, and the puck is away from Pavelski. For those who mention the speed of the game, it is obvious that the speed of the game is intense. But notice how Dumba’s defensive partner, Jonas Brodin, goes from staring at Pavelski to staring at the puck inches from outside the net. The puck ricochets off the net and bounces. At this point, Dumba always did not contact Pavelski.

That’s more than enough time for Dumba to relax. Dumba chooses to do the opposite. Again, forget for a minute about the parts of the body directly involved in the blow. Dumba clears from a crouch and launches up into Pavelski’s header area.

If it’s legal, it’s embarrassing. Many defending the blow while expressing sympathy for Pavelski’s head injury say the blow was shoulder-to-shoulder and the blow to the head came afterwards, when Pavelski’s head clearly came into direct contact with the ice. From a certain angle, it certainly looked like Dumba’s shoulder hitting Pavelski’s head, but that’s really not the point here.

The thing is, a number of hockey goalies will choose to say those who are frustrated with the hit don’t know hockey, haven’t played hockey, are trying to mess up the game, or something like that. Nobody is trying to take the physique out of hockey. It’s part of what makes the sport beautiful and what so many people, myself included, enjoy. But act like there’s nothing you can do about it calibrate that physicality is dishonest. It’s rooted in the culture of hockey, rooted in the players themselves, that being tough is the only option, even if it’s detrimental. If that means playing through a broken foot or a torn hip labrum or a bad hip, so be it. Ask Roope Hintz, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, respectively. This culture is a discussion for another day, but head injuries are a whole different animal.

To compare the Dumba shot to another combat sport, it would be the NFL’s most basic unnecessary roughing penalty for a safety and would undoubtedly get a player ejected for targeting in college football. The timing of that hit relative to a defensive lineman would draw a passer flag 10 out of 10 times. Calibrating physicality is not eliminating it.

Dumba is a player known for playing on the edge. A month ago it was a success for Evgeny Kuznetsov.

A few weeks later, it was Drew O’Connor.

Less than two weeks later, it was Pavelski. I’m not here to issue verdicts on Dumba or try to figure out his intent. I don’t think he was trying to get Pavelski out of the game. At least, I sure hope he wasn’t. But what is indisputable is that Dumba’s stunt was late, it was vicious and it was completely unnecessary.

For those who think it’s acceptable, or especially as part of “playoff hockey,” it might be time to reevaluate. If seeing Pavelski motionless and dazed on the ice in San Jose and Dallas — not to mention visibly traumatized and emotional on the podium — is something that is simply seen as a byproduct of the game, the game needs to be changed.

Fans of the stars will portray Dumba as the villain, and that’s understandable, to some degree. Many of them also need to have an honest conversation with themselves about how they would view this situation if it was a Stars player taking the hit. Would you be quick to hide behind the legality of the blow or would you find the humanity to see the ridiculousness?

Because Dumba is not the real problem here. The NHL can’t even have the courage to admit a connection between brain damage and CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. How can you try to solve a problem when you don’t even recognize it exists?

Dumba is a product of the problem, which is a league and a culture that continues to enable, promote and encourage horrific scenes like the one that unfolded again in Dallas.

(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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