Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron is not a player you expect to see in a fight.
Listed at only 5-foot-9, 163 pounds, the 29-year-old Byron entered Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers having been involved in only four NHL fights in more than 450 career games (including playoffs and preseason). It is not something he does, and on the rare occasion he has, it has happened against players that are comparable to him in stature.
But there he was, early in the first period, dropping the gloves and squaring off with the significantly larger and presumably stronger MacKenzie Weegar.
It went horribly for Byron, who stumbled off the ice, did not return to the game, and is not joining the Canadiens on its current road trip for Thursday’s massive game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game that could very well decide which team gets the eighth and final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
[Related: Panthers’ Weegar knocks out Byron with nasty uppercut]
He was no doubt only fighting Weegar because that is what was expected of Byron as part of the NHL’s “code.”
You see, earlier this season Byron concussed Weegar with an ugly hit to the head that resulted in Byron being suspended three games by the NHL Department of Player Safety.
But because there is still a culture of on-ice retribution in today’s NHL game, it was expected that Byron was going to have to answer the call and drop the gloves with the player he had previously wronged, no matter how ridiculous it may have seemed physically.
Byron’s agent, J.P. Barry, was extremely critical of this whole mindset when he told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on Tuesday, “This was not a hockey fight,” while pointing out the massive size difference between the two players.
Weegar said after the game, via The Athletic, that he simply asked Byron if he wanted to fight, and that if he had declined he would have been willing to let it go. Obviously Byron didn’t decline, likely because he felt he was doing the right thing and the thing he was supposed to do given the circumstances.
Unfortunately, he ended up suffering the consequences.
There are no doubt a lot of people in hockey that will salute Byron for doing this, even after seeing the ugly result.
This is wrong.
This is wrong because Byron was already given his punishment when he was handed one of the longest suspensions the league has issued this season for a player safety incident, also costing him more than $18,000 in salary.
But it is not just the suspension itself that matters here.
The hit itself was very bad and deserving of every game and penny it ended up costing Byron. Maybe even more, you could argue.
What matters here is that the Department of Player Safety worked exactly the way it was supposed to work and, ultimately, designed to work. You can quibble with the number of games they ended up giving him for the hit. Maybe you think it deserved more, especially since Weegar was injured as a result of the play.
But the purpose of the department isn’t to just hand out suspensions for an arbitrary number of games, randomly punishing players for their wrongdoings.
As I wrote earlier this season regarding the Department’s continued dealings with Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, it is not there for you or your team to get a pound of flesh and feel better about what happened to your player.
It is there to improve the safety of the game and the players by changing the way the play, and ultimately eliminating the types of play that result in suspensions.
The hope, in an ideal world, is that they have no suspensions to issue because players have learned how to play the game in a way that they are not deliberately out to hurt people. Obviously that will never happen because it’s a fast, chaotic game with a lot of collisions for 60 minutes a night, and there are some players that, unfortunately, do not have that mindset.
Sometimes the line will be crossed. Sometimes players will do bad things.
But you still want to make them more aware of how they are playing, where they are hitting people, and how they are hitting people, so the department has to exist and sometimes has to hand out punishments.
Byron understood that immediately.
On the day he was suspended he issued the following statement on Twitter.
In short: A normally clean player delivered a bad hit that had a bad result.
That player was punished by the league for delivering the bad hit, while that player also accepted responsibility for it, apologized for it, and tried to learn from it.
That should have been the end of it because the system worked.
Just because what unfolded on Tuesday night was an accepted practice 25 or 30 years ago, when there was no such department to police these things, no standard for what was illegal, and when the game was the wild west in terms of cheap shots and goonism, does not mean it should be accepted today.
That is the point Barry tried to make with LeBrun on Tuesday. An excerpt, via The Athletic (subscription required):
“I truly believe this exact situation is Exhibit A for re-examining our current rules for fighting,” continued Barry, one of the game’s most influential player agents. “If the fight is patently retribution for something that happened long before this game was ever played how is that allowed to occur without being addressed?”
Again, pretty strong points.
“I’m sure we will hear from many others tomorrow (Wednesday) who see things much differently than me and will say ‘look at Paul Byron, what a warrior, he answered the bell.’ These are the people that believe in the old `code.’ It’s time for Player Safety to be the new `code.’ What really matters is eliminating avoidable concussions wherever we can in our player safety rules going forward.”
Byron had no business fighting Weegar on Tuesday night, and there was no reason for him to feel pressured into doing it because everything about the incident was already handled and settled three months earlier.
Now Byron himself is out, dealing with the effects of an unnecessary blow to the head (which is the most important thing here), and also potentially impacting the Canadiens’ chances of making the playoffs.
The entire thing is extremely frustrating.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.