Joe Pavelski, Matt Dumba, and the Myth of NHL Player Safety

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 11: Joe Pavelski #16 of the Dallas Stars skates against the Seattle Kraken during the first period at Climate Pledge Arena on March 11, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 11: Joe Pavelski #16 of the Dallas Stars skates against the Seattle Kraken during the first period at Climate Pledge Arena on March 11, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

Do you remember the childhood tale of the three little pigs? The one where the wolf huffed and puffed and blew down the house made of straw? Picture the NHL Player Safety rulebook balanced on top of that straw house. Now imagine that the wind is the start of playoffs. The wolf blows and the whole structure collapses with the rulebook buried inside.

It’s a silly image, but the main point rings true. There is a distinct lack of consistency in the league’s rules between the regular season and postseason. For all teams, it seems like the minute playoffs start the officials lose the rulebook used all season. The most inane incidents get the whistle while war crimes are allowed.

For a game so heavily penalized, game 1 against the Minnesota Wild felt like anarchy. That largely stems from what happened to Joe Pavelski.

A quick sequence of events:

Matt Dumba laid a late dangerous hit on Pavelski → he received a five-minute major → that was nullified by a review → Dumba received only a two-minute roughing penalty for fighting Max Domi (who received a 10-minute misconduct) → the game is in shambles

I could argue until I’m blue in the face that the hit on Pavelski was illegal. Dumba hit late when Pavelski didn’t have possession of the puck. He drove his shoulder up towards his head and blindsided Pavelski.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the NHL ruled it was legal. Now where do we go from here?

Reflecting on what happened the next morning, Tyler Seguin said it succinctly: “It was dangerous. It was late.”

I’ve brought up how there is this confusion between legality and safety before. A hit can be technically legal by the NHL Player Safety rulebook while still being absolutely dangerous. And quite frankly, if that type of danger is allowable then the rules need to be changed.

A high-sticking call that draws blood gets a double minor. But when a man is knocked unconscious on the ice it’s deemed “ok” and not penalized?

The recklessness allowed in the name of the playoffs is a blight on the NHL. To say that hockey players are built different is a delusion. Their brains and skulls are no different from yours or mine.

The effects of repeated brain injuries get compounded. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is thought to be caused by repeated injuries and blows to the head. But we follow a sport in a league where the commissioner refuses to even acknowledge a link between hockey concussions and CTE and denies it to this day.

It is absolutely pathetic and irresponsible to deny that link despite numerous studies and autopsies proving Gary Bettman wrong.

It is for the good of hockey that the NHL takes head safety seriously. Not penalizing these blows sets a dangerous precedent. In the two days of the playoffs there have already been two similar situations.

On the second day, Michael Bunting was given a match penalty and a hearing after making contact with Erik Cernak’s head. Bunting did deserve these consequences and it’s good the league got it right in this situation.

The NHL also had the chance to appropriately discipline Dumba the next day. But he was not even issued a hearing and instead the broadcasts keep jabbering on about the Wild’s physicality. I suppose being a big tough hockey team takes priority over Pavelski’s health.

I am in no position to question Dumba as a person off the ice and nor do I want to. But watching him laugh in the penalty box as Pavelski struggled to get up elicited disgust and anger in so many of us. To see no consequences for Dumba felt appalling.

I don’t know the true reason why a hearing wasn’t issued. Maybe the league doesn’t want the refs coming under fire. Maybe they really think it’s clean. Ultimately it is being brushed away just like many incidents before.

If the NHL Player Safety book were to take situations like Pavelski’s seriously it would only improve the quality of the game. Will the Dallas vs Minnesota series be better because Matt Dumba threw a big bad hit? Or would it have been better to see the Stars elite top line in action with Joe Pavelski leading the way.

If your players are healthy, they can actually play. And having these star athletes playing their best hockey in the playoffs is what’s fun and grows the game.

If the Wild knock out Pavelski with a late and dangerous hit, then should the Stars do that to Kaprizov? No, and doing so would make the series worse. Dangerous precedent sets up a weaker game.

By no means am I saying that physicality has no place in hockey. The sport wouldn’t be the same without its passion, checks, and fights. But it should not be elevated at the expense of the health of these athletes.

If it causes dangerous injury? Penalize it.

Take care of your athletes and let the game be actually seen. Changes need to be made to the NHL Player Safety manual or else there could be another veteran who could end up like Pavelski did in game 1.