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Top Shelf: Reasonable doubt gets Pronger off the hook

Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger has had a fair share of disciplinary measures levied against him during his career. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger has had a fair share of disciplinary measures levied against him during his career. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

To simplify one of Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, every action has an opposite and equal reaction. But some irate Vancouver Canucks fans would have you believe in the NHL, the same action can produce opposite and completely unequal reactions.

In the wake of the league’s decision not to suspend Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger for stepping on Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler during Wednesday night’s game in Anaheim, there are cries of injustice and accusations of double standards for star players.

After all, just a few months ago then New York Islander Chris Simon was handed the longest suspension in league history for stomping on Pittsburgh’s Jarkko Ruutu.

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Pronger’s action was not the same as Simon’s .

Deciphering another person’s intent can be difficult, but for all intents and purposes, you could see the thought bubble forming above Simon’s head that said: “You’re not going to like this one, Jarkko.”

The Pronger situation, on the other hand, is much more convoluted. There’s no doubt his skate makes contact with Kesler’s leg. But it also appears Pronger is trying to yank his foot free from where it was clearly wedged between Kesler’s legs.

And here’s a law of physics nobody would need Newton to explain: Ice is slippery. While Pronger is vigorously trying to yank one foot free, the other one, which he’s trying to plant on a patch of ice, is obviously not as stable as it otherwise might be. One foot slips a little, the other one drops.

It could be as simple as that.

However, while his history is certainly not Simon-esque, Pronger hasn’t exactly been a model NHL citizen. The man did have two suspensions in last year’s playoffs alone and already introduced himself to Kesler by cross-checking him after the Canucks forward had scored a goal in a 4-0 Vancouver win back in November.

(Between the abuse Pronger and Jesse Boulerice have handed him, Kesler’s got to be in the running for most battered body this season).

Giving Pronger the benefit of the doubt in any incident, some would say, is akin to entrusting a ‘Wallet Inspector’ who approaches you on the street.

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Others will claim the reason Pronger got off was because he’s an elite player, but that argument loses face in the fact the NHL hasn’t hesitated to mandate the big blueliner miss games for past indiscretions.

The bottom line is NHL senior executive vice-president of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, can’t – and shouldn’t – convict on reputation or suspicion. He’s got to look at each incident individually and if it’s deemed suspension worthy, then let a player’s history play into the sentencing.

That’s why Simon got the severest sentence in league history. Don’t forget, he was fresh off serving a 25-gamer – for hacking the Rangers’ Ryan Hollweg in the chest last spring – when he dropped his foot on Ruutu.

People will take one peek at Pronger’s rap sheet and conclude he must have meant to stomp on Kesler. My take, influenced by an Internet viewing with several other members of The Hockey News staff, is there’s at least as good a chance he didn’t mean to do it as a chance he did.

The truth is, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Campbell to suspend Pronger for a handful of games, appease the Canucks, field one perturbed, but not vitriolic call from Anaheim GM Brian Burke and call it a day.

But obviously he believes the action was devoid of obvious intent, so Pronger skates away and the NHL avoids the dangerous precedent of conviction on character perception.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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