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Opinion: Nathan MacKinnon’s helmet throw can’t happen

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At first glance, the play may seem funny but it’s absolutely something you can’t do on the ice

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Nathan MacKinnon knows a thing or two about becoming an internet meme.

He’s the guy who scores goals so slick they get played on highlight reels across the league. He’s the guy who made a weird video working at Tim Horton’s with fellow Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby, which delighted the internet almost as much as his goals typically do. He’s even the guy who was the subject of a weird piece by The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell this past summer lamenting the fact that he can’t be a true superstar, because he’s too affable and no one hates him.

Wednesday night might be the first time, though, that he’s become a meme for doing the wrong thing.

Eight Colorado goals into the Avalanche’s 9-3 beatdown of the Arizona Coyotes just hours shy of April Fool’s Day, MacKinnon got into it with Arizona’s Conor Garland after he decided Garland was getting a little too tenacious in their battle for the puck.

At first, he and Garland simply battled it out for the puck, with Garland knocking it away from MacKinnon and ultimately sending it loose for Coyotes defender Ilya Lyubushkin to skate away with. But after the puck officially left their collective possession, MacKinnon decided he’d had enough — and grabbed Garland, hauling him up and removing his helmet in the process of heading to the ice himself during their brief ensuing tussle.

Garland skated back from MacKinnon after the altercation and was shoved further away by captain Gabriel Landeskog, who came to the quick defense of his team’s most valuable centreman. But after Lybushkin skated in to protect Garland and started to scuffle with Landeskog, MacKinnon got himself involved again — in the form of throwing Garland helmet back at him, clipping him in the bottom of the face in the process.

Luckily for MacKinnon, the helmet throw didn’t seem to injure Garland; the pair got back into it until they were broken up, with each earning at least two minutes for roughing.

MacKinnon, though, didn’t just get the minor. He was dealt a double minor and a 10 minute game misconduct, effectively ending his night — and ultimately raising the question of whether or not he’ll get a call from the league for the move.

In a vacuum, it was hilarious. Bowling with hockey helmets as balls and humans as pins is the kind of chaos absolutely no one had on their 2021 NHL Bingo Cards, no matter how ridiculous they expected the season to be. It was petty and weird, and it rightly made the rounds on the internet as a result.

But in context, it was a stupid move by a player who currently serves as the reigning Lady Byng winner. The award goes to the player “adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.” This was anything but sportsmanlike and gentlemanly.

There’s not a whole lot of precedent for what MacKinnon did. After all, very few players are really given the opportunity to take helmets (or other pieces of equipment) and throw them at others on the ice.

That doesn’t mean penalties can’t be doled out thanks to equipment-related snafus, though — or that they don’t happen.

There was the Mark Fistric situation in 2010, when the Dallas Stars defender was fined following his match penalty earned for clocking Calgary forward Eric Nystrom in the head with Nystrom’s own helmet — an incident that only earned a fine because it was accidental in nature (Fistric had unknowingly gotten the helmet tangled in his glove before swinging his hand), but was still given a match penalty as an action that was deemed worthy of the ‘intent to injure’ moniker.

There was also the Willie Mitchell situation in 2014, when the then-Florida Panthers defender tried to hit Kris Letang with his helmet during a fight. Mitchell, who seemed unhappy that an official had tried to step in and break up his bout with Letang, took Letang’s helmet and swung it at the Penguins defender in lieu of attempting to reach him with his fists. That particular incident didn’t earn Mitchell a fine or a suspension — but also came during the infamous Slava Voynov season, with the NHL a little preoccupied with monitoring the Los Angeles Kings (who, just two weeks before the Willie Mitchell incident, had been fined $100,000 for violating the terms of Voynov’s suspension when he showed up at the rink and practiced with teammates).

There was a more egregious example in 2015 overseas, when EIHL defender and former North American minor league journeyman Joe Grimaldi was suspended for 18 games for throwing his helmet at an opponent’s face during a fight. The suspension made more sense when looking at the surrounding incidents, which included Grimaldi delivering a high hit on the blue line prior to the fight and spearing his opponent in an attempt to get out of throwing punches. Ultimately, Grimaldi finished that game with 69 penalty minutes (nice, I know) including a two minute minor for an illegal check to the head, a spearing major, fighting major, game misconduct, match penalty and another misconduct.

That’s not to say, of course, that MacKinnon deserves an eighteen-game suspension. He may not even necessarily deserve a fine, especially since Conor Garland appeared to be fine after the hit; he was caught off guard by the throw more than anything.

According to the NHL Rulebook, though, there’s a risk of supplemental discipline for MacKinnon — which makes the move a foolish one for a crucial player on a team locked tightly into the race for the top of their division.

According to the 2020-21 NHL Rulebook, Rule 53.5 states that a player who intentionally throws their stick or other pieces of equipment outside of the playing area will receive a game misconduct. Rule 53.6 ups the ante, awarding a match penalty to any player who “attempts to or deliberately injures an opponent” by throwing equipment — and although there’s no automatic fine or suspension for throwing equipment, rule 53.9 states that “supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion”.

It’s not the first dumb move a player will make this season (remember when Rangers defender Anthony DeAngelo fought his own teammate after spending the year fighting with fans on Twitter, getting himself banished to Neverland and permanently removed from his team’s roster?), and it’s more ridiculous than anything.

But ultimately, it was something that was only cute if you don’t look at it too closely. It was an unnecessarily petty move by a star player during a game in which his team was thoroughly embarrassing their opponents already — and if the tossed helmet had gone just a few inches higher, could have injured said opponent and kept that very star player out of the lineup at a time in the season when having everyone in the lineup will count.

Colorado is set to play 16 games in 30 days this month. They’ll only spend six of those at home, too, traveling for the remaining 10 games at a time when they’ll hopefully try to rest their star goaltender and keep everyone healthy. And they’ll face Arizona again in a few weeks time — which could make things even uglier.

It wasn’t a Raffi Torres hit. It wasn’t even Connor McDavid’s high elbow to Montreal forward Jesper Kotkaniemi.

But for a player too good to lose, it was just a stupid move.