The hit heard ’round Hamden

Brogan Rafferty’s hit was not a dirty play

By on October 23, 2018

It was the big news around campus, around Connecticut and eventually, around the college hockey world.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, in the men’s ice hockey game between in-state rivals Quinnipiac and UConn, Quinnipiac’s junior defenseman Brogan Rafferty delivered a crushing hit to UConn freshman forward Ruslan Iskhakov.

Screenshot courtesy of Q30 Television
Iskhakov immediately fell to the ice, appearing unconscious, and he eventually had to get stretchered off. Rafferty was given a five minute major penalty for charging and a game misconduct, meaning he was kicked out of the game.

UConn released a statement the morning after on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

“Ruslan Iskhakov was transported to the hospital from the arena during last night’s game at Quinnipiac for precautionary reasons. All tests were normal and he was released from the hospital. He is currently back on campus in Storrs and is doing well. He will be evaluated on a game-by-game basis with no timetable set for a return,” according to the statement. 

I first want to make it clear that I am glad that Iskhakov is okay and I hope he recovers fully. You hate to see any player go down after a hit like that.

He’s a player with a lot of potential and a bright future ahead of him. Only a freshman at UConn, the Moscow, Russia native was drafted by the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft. He also had a goal and an assist in his first game with UConn.

After this hit occurred, many people tweeted out their thoughts. There was a mix of reactions, as some said that while it was a vicious hit, it was clean, while others felt as though Rafferty intentionally hit Iskhakov in the head in a malicious fashion.

While I feel for Iskhakov, I agree it was not a dirty play by Rafferty. In my opinion, it was a clean hit.

Now before I get into the details of the hit, I don’t want anyone to assume that I am just your regular hockey fanatic and am basing this all on just what I have seen from the videos. First, I was at the game and I am a first-hand witness to the hit and everything that occurred after.

Second, and most important, is outside of playing hockey for over fifteen years, I am also a certified USA Hockey official. I have been officiating high school kids and U-18 teams for four years now. While, I have not officiated at the NCAA level, most of the rules are transferable and what I have learned is the most of the same material at the NCAA level.

I have gone to multiple seminars and meetings and have learned specifically what to look for when it comes to big hits like the one that occurred with Rafferty and Iskhakov. It’s a major talking point, especially nowadays with the increasing awareness of concussions and head injuries.

So while I’m not perfect in my analysis, I’m also not your average hockey fan basing my opinion on general hockey knowledge.

In the specific play of discussion, Iskhakov was skating into the Quinnipiac defensive zone as the only UConn player on the rush. It was only him, two Quinnipiac defenders and a Quinnipiac forward that was backchecking on the play.

Iskhakov handled the puck, came across the blue line and entered the Quinnipiac defensive zone. He cut towards the middle of the ice, Rafferty stepped up and delivered the hit.

Iskhakov never saw him coming.

It wasn’t because it was a blindsided hit. Iskhakov did one of the biggests no-no’s in hockey. He was carrying the puck with his head down.

It’s one of those things that you’re taught at the youth levels, especially when body checking is being entered as a part of the game. You need to keep your head up in order to see who is coming at you so you will have the ability to either brace for a hit or avoid it entirely.

The other thing Iskhakov did that caused the hit was the fact that he cut to the middle. I mentioned that he was the only UConn player on the rush. In this situation you are presented as a player with three options: to carry the puck wide along the boards, to shoot the puck into the zone or to go to the middle of the ice.

The last option is what Iskhakov tried to do – and it’s probably the worst one of the three. Most of the time, cutting to the middle gives you a higher chance of turning the puck over. You also run the risk of getting checked.

Now, this is not why I am justifying the hit. Iskhakov could have done all of this and Rafferty could have taken six strides, led with the elbow and obviously targeted Iskhakov’s head and crushed him, making it an illegal hit.

What Iskhakov did made the hit worse, but it isn’t why it was clean. Rafferty was assessed a charging penalty. The definition of charging by USA Hockey is as follows below.

“Charging is the action where a player takes more than two strides or travels an excessive distance to accelerate through a body check for the purpose of punishing the opponent. This includes skating or leaving one’s feet (jumping) into the opponent to deliver a check, accelerating through a check for the purpose of punishing the opponent, or skating a great distance for the purpose of delivering a check with excessive force.”

But if you look at the hit, Rafferty didn’t do any of this. He is skating backwards, then transitions and switches his feet to move forward, takes one stride to get himself moving and then glides before making contact with Iskhakov. There was no acceleration.

In addition, he never left his feet to deliver the check. His feet came off of the ground because of the impact. Rafferty also did not lead with his elbow, which would have given him an elbowing penalty. It did not appear that he had an intent to hit Iskhakov’s head either.

To top it all off, the officials did not originally have a penalty. Neither referees’ hand went up in the air when the play first happened.

So why was a penalty called?

It wasn’t until after Iskhakov laid there motionless for minutes and was carted off the ice that the officials gathered and decided to give Rafferty the charging major and the game misconduct. It’s a tough call to make. Like I said, the ongoing awareness of head injuries and the fact that Iskhakov had to be stretchered off puts the officials in a bind. If they don’t call a penalty, you’re completely going against everything you’re taught to prohibit these hits.

It was a penalty that had to be given. The simple fact that if there was no penalty assessed, that means the officials are opening the door for more hits like that to occur, and dirtier hits to happen as well. The fact that if a player could get knocked out cold and no penalty be called, what kind of hit does deserve a penalty call?

Don’t get me wrong, the hit certainly could have been avoided on Rafferty’s part. Especially in this hockey age where hits like the one he delivered are a part of the game that is trying to be taken out. Instead, players are taught to either avoid hitting the player entirely or to lessen the hit.

But I believe it was a clean hit. It was a case where the bigger man beat the smaller kid. Rafferty is listed at 6’1”, 191 pounds. Iskhakov is only 5’7”, 165 pounds. That’s a significant difference in size. If Rafferty delivers that hit to a player even just three inches taller than Iskhakov and maybe 15 pounds heavier, I feel as though the result of the hit would be much different.

It’s a hit that you can compare to with many of Scott Stevens’ hits. Stevens, a retired NHL player, was known for delivering huge hits to those who dared to carry the puck with their head down into the middle of the ice.

Rafferty’s hit was almost the exact same as Stevens’ hit on Philadelphia Flyers’ Eric Lindros in the 2000 Eastern Conference playoffs, which ultimately gave Lindros a concussion, but Stevens was not penalized.

That’s the difference between now and then. Hits that once were normal hockey plays now border on that fine line between legal and illegal.

I believe a penalty was given to Rafferty because of the result, not because of an infraction. It was unfortunate Iskhakov was injured on the play, but Rafferty’s hit was a clean hockey play.

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