It was around 8 PM ET on Wednesday when I noticed the NHL had not yet announced a Zac Rinaldo suspension. The hearing was scheduled for earlier in the day so the lack of any news clearly meant one thing: The NHL was waiting until late in the day to bury the news because the suspension was either very long or very short, which would be bad for the brand no matter what.
In hindsight, the only thing stupider than the NHL's decision to give Rinaldo only six games for his assault of an unsuspecting Samuel Girard was my belief the league might levy anything resembling meaningful punishment for a repeat offender who is better suited for a prison league than a professional league.
If there was ever a time for the NHL to make an emphatic statement about the safety of its players, this was it. Rinaldo, who has been suspended four times and fined twice during his 306-game career, might be the most useless player in hockey, so banning him for 10, 15 or 20 games would not result in an angry Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka unleashing a series of mean bitmojis at the NHL's Snapchat. It's not as though Coyotes fans would be lighting up the NHL's phone lines to complain about losing a 1980s ski movie bad guy crossed with a fart.
Rinaldo received nothing but a slap on the wrists; it was a very forceful slap that probably left his wrists sore for a few minutes, but considering the crime, it was a wrist slap nonetheless.
But why? Even with Girard avoiding serious injury, the human equivalent of being trapped in an airplane bathroom after John Popper unleashes hell had such a checkered past that six games doesn't make sense. The NHL seems to look for ways to get out of imposing any real discipline in these situations, so what defense is there for one-punching a guy that's not even looking at the guy delivering the punch?
Coyotes radio announcer and ex-player known for his fists Paul Bissonnette proffered a defense that was surely used by Rinaldo during his hearing—after a clean hit on Nathan MacKinnon, Rinaldo thought Girard was coming after him in an effort to defend his teammate and, faced with a split-second decision, elected to punch first and worry about the repercussions later. It's a specious defense, as Girard shows nearly no aggressiveness toward the bubbling vomit in a 10-gallon garbage bag that is Rinaldo and it's not Girard's fault the puke bag misread the situation so badly.
It's just enough, however, to open the door for the NHL to go easy on Rinaldo.
Yet it didn't! The NHL didn't buy it!
From the explanation video released by the NHL: "It is important to note that while we accept Rinaldo's explanation that he believed that because Girard had approached him after the hit meant that Girard was anticipating the fight, ultimately the video shows that this is not the case. Whatever Girard's intentions, he gives Rinaldo no clear indication that he is a willing combatant."
The NHL laughed off Rinaldo's argument that he had the right to slug a guy because he was afraid he might punch him first. And the NHL still settled on six games! Six! For cold cocking a dude! Six!
If George Parros, the NHL's latest dean of discipline and also a fighter during his playing days, isn't willing to drop the hammer on Rinaldo for violating The Code with a vicious sucker punch, maybe we should stop caring when the NHL hires a new person every couple years to run the department. Clearly the league's hands are tied by being beholden to past weak suspensions that are destined to forever be used as precedents to avoid taking any strides toward true player safety. Let Paul Kariya or Martha Stewart or the original Air Bud's stuffed corpse run the department when Parros eventually leaves since the decisions will be exactly the same no matter who is in charge.
This is just as much on the NHLPA as it is the league. The parameters used in deciding suspension length—for example, the result of the act mattering more than the act itself, as bat shit a parameter as you can have when looking out for player safety—were negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement. That didn't stop Brendan Shanahan from going wild with suspensions when he ran things, but the complaints about the number of games players were missing along with his departure has left the league with this toothless entity. If players want real change, they'll have to push for it during the next lockout in a couple years.
Until then, we will have to hope that a Stern Talking To along with four, five, six or seven taps on the wrist for dirty or injurious acts will result in Rinaldo learning his lesson and reforming his ways. Of course, he won't, so all we can do is kick back, put our feet up, and see who Rinaldo tries to disembowel with his skate in the coming years because the other guy looked at him funny during warmups.