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Bettman affirms Rielly's five-game ban

Morgan Rielly Morgan Rielly - Getty Images

NEW YORK — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has upheld Morgan Rielly's five-game suspension for cross-checking after the NHL Players' Association filed for an appeal.

The league's department of player safety banned the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman last week for his cross-check to the head of Senators forward Ridly Greig in the dying moments of Ottawa's 5-3 victory on Feb. 10.

Rielly, who was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct, lunged at Greig up high after the centre fired a slapshot into an empty net from close range with 5.1 seconds left in regulation. Greig wasn't injured on the play.

Bettman's ruling on the appeal is final. Players only have the right to a subsequent appeal to an independent arbitrator on suspensions of six or more games.

"I find that Mr. Rielly’s actions were not merely careless or reckless, they were intentional," Bettman wrote as part of his ruling.

The hearing between Bettman and Rielly's representatives took place at the NHL's office in New York on Friday.

According to Bettman's ruling, the NHLPA argued that Rielly did not intend to hit Greig in the head, stating the primary point of contact was his body before the stick rode up Greig's arm.

The NHLPA cited Rielly's clean record — the blueliner had not been suspended in his 819-game career (including playoffs) — and Greig's lack of injury. It also argued the department of player safety's ruling was excessive based on prior discipline for similar infractions.

In his decision, Bettman stated that Rielly had sufficient time to engage Grieg differently, "e.g. with a push or a shove or even by dropping his gloves to fight."

"Had he done so, there likely would have been no need for supplemental discipline," Bettman wrote.

The commissioner also disputed the claims that Rielly did not intend to hit Greig's head, stating that the cross-check was delivered high and forcefully.

Bettman said much of the testimony offered by Rielly, Toronto GM Brad Treliving and president Brendan Shanahan concerned whether Greig's slapshot was provocative but called that discussion "utterly irrelevant."

"Mr. Rielly's actions were not taken in self-defence. They were not accidental and they were not reflexive. They were not simply careless or merely reckless," Bettman wrote.

"With plenty of time to think about what he was going to do next, Mr. Rielly approached Mr. Greig from the side then used his stick as a weapon to deliver the kind of blow to the head that the league has repeatedly made clear will not be tolerated."

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe also backed Rielly's actions after the loss, stating "I thought it was appropriate. Our players have the right to react.”

Bettman praised Rielly in his ruling for not defending his actions during the suspension process.

"Finally, I commend Mr. Rielly for forthrightly disavowing suggestions that have been made publicly by others that his actions were somehow appropriate," Bettman wrote. "Certainly, the conduct leading to this suspension is out of character with his long record of clean play in the NHL. It is my hope and expectation that the events leading to this suspension were an aberration that will not be repeated."

Bettman acknowledged Rielly's clean supplemental discipline history and Greig's lack of injury but stated the department of player safety took that into account with its initial ruling.

"Mr. Rielly's suspension almost certainly would have been considerably longer if he did not have a clean record or if there had been an injury," he wrote.

The Maple Leafs have gone a perfect 4-0-0 with Rielly out of the lineup, earning wins against St. Louis (twice), Philadelphia and Anaheim.

The 29-year-old will be eligible to return to the lineup when the Leafs visit the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday.