I saw Eric Gryba play a lot of games before he was a professional. He's enormous. He's kind of slow. He's absurdly strong and aggressive.
He racked up 354 penalty minutes in four years at Boston University (remember, this is without fighting). A majority of this time in the box came because Gryba -- at 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds -- was almost always bigger than the player he engaged on the ice. Most hockey fans learned Gryba's name for the first time Thursday night when he demolished Lars Eller in the latest Hit That Everyone Yelled About in Game 1 of a series between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens.
In real time, the incident reminded me of any number of similar open-ice hits. A really big defenseman steps up and crushes a none-the-wiser forward just trying to corral a terrible pass from his teammate in open ice. Gryba just happened to send Eller flying violently through the air in the process. The combination of collisions with Gryba and the hard, cold ice sheet resulted in a particularly gruesome scene.
Later in the evening, we saw Dustin Brown throw his knee into a skating lane and trip Jaden Schwartz. The play was innocent in real time, just another of the million collisions that happen during any hockey game that result in incidental penalties. After looking at the shortest of video clips, it was pretty clear Brown's goal was to take Schwartz out, never mind the flying elbow that missed.
Friday afternoon, Gryba had a meeting with the NHL to discuss the hit and eventual two-game suspension for the hit, which he already received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for. At the same time, Brown was in Los Angeles with his teammates preparing for Game 3.
After I saw every GIF and video and angle and argument of the Gryba hit, his intention was clear. This was just a play in a hockey game. Gryba didn't attempt to do anything other than the very thing enormous defensemen learn to do in that situation from the time they're identified as enormous defensemen. He tried to separate Eller from the puck by making contact with his body. There was a clear purpose for Gryba to try to engage Eller. The result of the hit was horrible. Eller spent the evening in the hospital. All signs point to him being OK in the sense that he probably only has a concussion and some broken bones in his face.
Brown, however, identified Schwartz as vulnerable and tried to injure him instead of making a basic defensive move to impede Schwartz's movement. The play had nothing to do with hockey. It had to do with Brown wanting to influence a series in a way Brown often does. He scores goals, annoys his opponents and occasionally acts like an idiot on the ice. He behaved in this manner all the way to a Stanley Cup a year ago.
These plays represent very different sides of physical play in hockey: One having to do with the sport, and the other having to do with disrespect.
Gryba did his job. Something bad happened because of it, but that was never Gryba's intention. He just tried to separate Eller from the puck with his body -- like every more physically inclined defenseman in the league would have done.
Brown, on the other hand, flouted any conception of acceptable behavior in throwing a cheapshot designed to do nothing other than hurt Schwartz. But no one is talking about this hit because Schwartz is fine, and his head wasn't involved and there wasn't any blood.
Supplemental discipline exists for a few reasons. It's impossible for officials to see everything, so taking care of a few hits (like Andrew Ference's elbow on Mikhail Grabovski) that go unnoticed is part of it. Taking another look at certain hits that may warrant more punishment than they received is an element as well.
It makes sense for Brendan Shanahan and his friends to talk to Gryba if for no reason other than to explain why he received the penalty he did even if they chose not to suspend him. Moreover, Gryba has every right to defend himself in saying he was just playing hockey. That's all he was doing. Eller was injured badly on Thursday, but Gryba didn't do anything beyond play hockey in hurting him. There are parts of this sport that are violent that always should be a part of the game even if they go horribly wrong sometimes. That said, I still understand the need and reasoning for supplemental discipline if only to account for Eller's injuries even if there are instances when the same play resulted in little more than a missed shift.
Then there are parts of hockey that have absolutely nothing to do with the game.
What Dustin Brown did on Thursday night had no immediate effect on the St. Louis Blues' lineup. Jaden Schwartz skated the rest of the game and celebrated a win afterward. But Brown acted beyond the scope of sport, and he deserves to be punished for that -- even if his target didn't land in the hospital.