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Uproar Over An Upending
Bob Verdi
November 14, 1983
Chicago's Tom Lysiak was suspended for 20 games for putting, a linesman on the ice, so he took the NHL to court, focusing attention anew on hockey violence
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November 14, 1983

Uproar Over An Upending

Chicago's Tom Lysiak was suspended for 20 games for putting, a linesman on the ice, so he took the NHL to court, focusing attention anew on hockey violence

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Perhaps because the misdeed occurred the night before Halloween, some people in the National Hockey League acted as though it should be taken no more seriously than a trick-or-treat prank. Tom Lysiak, a center for the Chicago Black Hawks, tripped Linesman Ron Foyt during a 6-1 win over the Hartford Whalers at Chicago Stadium. This prompted Referee Dave Newell to impose a 20-game suspension on Lysiak under a tough, 14-month-old NHL rule meant to crack down on abuse of game officials. No sooner did Newell act than Lysiak and the NHL Players Association took the case into Cook County ( Illinois) Circuit Court and on Thursday won a 10-day restraining order blocking the suspension; Lysiak scored a goal that night in Chicago's 7-4 loss at Detroit. Lysiak and the union argue that the punishment was too harsh. You don't send a guy to the gallows, they seemed to be saying for soaping somebody's windows.

But Lysiak's offense wasn't some harmless bit of mischief. The incident that got him into trouble began, innocuously enough, when Foyt waved the 30-year-old Lysiak, a 10-year NHL veteran, out of a face-off circle. Lysiak had been removed from a face-off several times by Foyt during the game, and he glared at the linesman in irritation. When the face-off finally did occur, the puck came back to Whaler Left Wing Sylvain Turgeon, who was right next to Lysiak. Here is where matters became uninnocuous. Instead of checking Turgeon or going for the puck, which would be a player's normal reaction, Lysiak moved away from the play and, with a quick and unmistakable flick of his stick and with a well-placed leg, upended Foyt, who thudded to the ice.

Foyt wasn't hurt, but Lysiak's bad intentions were clear enough that Newell called a game misconduct against him on the spot, which means ejection, and later, exercising the unprecedented sweeping powers now enjoyed by NHL refs, imposed the 20-game suspension. Videotapes of the incident left no doubt about the matter: An NHL player had deliberately and flagrantly tripped an official.

To be sure, there were those who tried to suggest that Lysiak's upending of Foyt was inadvertent. Faced with the possible suspension of one of his key players for one-fourth of the season, Black Hawk General Manager Bob Pulford maintained that Lysiak had merely "run into" Foyt.

The possibility that the tripping of Foyt was accidental is belied not only by the evidence of the videotapes but also by common sense. NHL referees and linesmen fall very infrequently during games—as a group, they are better skaters than the players—and it would have been an extraordinary coincidence for Foyt to be innocently tripped by Lysiak just seconds after the latter looked at him disgustedly after the face-off call.

A somewhat more serious objection to Lysiak's suspension is that even if the tripping of Foyt had been intentional, the punishment was uncommonly severe. Viewed against the backdrop of NHL history, that argument is technically correct. The NHL didn't invent violence, but until recently it has surely promoted it with its fighting-is-all-part-of-the-game policy and its cavalier attitude toward game officials. When Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren punched Referee Andy van Hellemond in the chest in the 1981-82 season, he was suspended for only five games and fined $500. The NHL came down somewhat harder when it imposed a 10-day suspension and $500 fine on Boston's Terry O'Reilly for hitting van Hellemond during a playoff game that same season.

It was the widely held belief that the NHL was too lenient in these cases that led to adoption of the far stricter rule under which Lysiak was suspended. Spurred into action to a large degree by complaints from the NHL Officials Association, the league convened a blue-ribbon panel at the end of the 1981-82 season to deal with the problem. The panel, which consisted of general managers, coaches, referees, NHL executives and, not least, NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson, unanimously approved recommendations that the NHL board of governors, on Sept. 8, 1982, fashioned into a tough policy, known as Rule 67 The rule defines two categories of violations. Category I specifies an automatic 20-game suspension for any player who "deliberately strikes...or who deliberately applies physical force in any manner against an official." Category II specifies an automatic three-game suspension for any player who "physically demeans" an official or who "deliberately applies physical force" to an official while being restrained during a fight with an apposing player. In each case the penalty is to be imposed by the referee right after the game, and the player has no right of appeal.

In deciding to take the matter of his suspension to court, Lysiak, who stands to lose about $50,000 if his 20-game banishment is ultimately upheld, protested, "Not only doesn't the punishment fit the crime. I don't have the right to give my side. There's no appeal. That's unconstitutional." In fact, there is a feeling in the NHL that in its commendable haste to get tough on violence against officials, the league adopted a flawed rule. Boston Bruins General Manager Harry Sinden, a member of the panel that devised Rule 67, now concedes that the rigid, two-tiered suspension procedure was a mistake. "The suspensions shouldn't jump from three games to 20 games." Sinden says. "There should be room for something in between." Legal sources suggest that Rule 67 may be vulnerable in court because it gives too much power to the ref who's closely involved with the incident being dealt with, and is called upon to act quickly, without due deliberation. Although NHL General Counsel Gilbert Stein vows that the league will defend itself against Lysiak's suit, he admits mildly, "I don't know what the courts will think. We hope we'll win."

Whatever the merits of Rule 67 on strictly legal grounds, the NHLPA's backing of Lysiak in his suit is jolting. Eagleson joined with other members of the blue-ribbon panel in approving both the three-or-20-game and the no-appeal provisions and is said to have spoken eloquently in favor of the toughest possible measures to curb violence against officials. In explaining why he's changing his tune now. Eagleson notes that the board of governors amended the rule that the blue-ribbon panel approved. In any event, Eagleson never raised any objections to the change until last week. As for Lysiak's suspension, Eagleson told the Chicago Tribune , "If 20 games is the maximum, and [ Lysiak] gets it for bumping the referee in the faceoff circle and knocking him down, he might as well have punched him."

The NHL might be well advised to refine Rule 67 so that, at the very least, ultimate disciplinary authority is invested in somebody less affected than the officials themselves. But Newell, the man who suspended Lysiak, had sufficient perspective to observe that "it's just fortunate that Foyt didn't land on his head." With those disconcerting words in mind, it seems clear that Lysiak was mistaken in holding that the NHL's punishment in his case didn't fit the crime. The intentional tripping of a hockey linesman surely deserves a 20-game suspension.