Red Wings pick Mitch Wheaton stretchered off after scary check from behind in WHL

Puck pundits, start parsing the phrase 'vulnerable player.' The Western Hockey League has a checking-from-behind controversy to deal with following a scary scenario that unfolded on Tuesday during the Kelowna Rockets-Seattle Thunderbirds match.

During the third period, Detroit Red Wings-drafted Rockets defenceman Mitch Wheaton, who's had a fairly full injury dossier in his young career, gathered up a loose puck at the right faceoff dot in his own zone. Wheaton carried the puck behind his own goal to elude Thunderbirds forechecker Roberts Lipsbergs. It looked as if Lipsbergs was bracing to deliver a check before Wheaton tried to pivot toward the corner. The contact propelled Wheaton into the boards, where his upper body appeared to take the brunt of the impact. There is some dispute over whether it was a bad hit, but a five-minute major and game misconduct was assessed and Wheaton was injured.

From Rockets play-by-play broadcaster Regan Bartel:

When they showed it a second time in the building, many fans gasped as they watched Lipsbergs hit Wheaton in the back. I viewed another angle of the hit which looks even worse. This was not a good hit. I don't believe Lipsbergs is a dirty player, but he clearly threw caution to the wind in making contact with Wheaton. The European forward will be suspended without question. He has to be. It is the only way the league can send a clear message to Lipsbergs and to others that aggressive force while your opponent is in a vulnerable position won't be tolerated. Is six games enough? The good news is Wheaton was able to travel back with the team but won't be playing anytime soon. (Regan's Rant)

(Slight digression: some spectators in Seattle were not very nice during the delay.)

(Makes perfect sense, since Roberts Lipsbergs is from Latvia. And we're back in.)

The way Wheaton pivoted will make this an interesting decision for the WHL. Lipsbergs seemed to have started his checking motion when he had a view of his opponent's back, but Wheaton pivoting could explain why the commentator believed it was shoulder-to-shoulder contact. It's also arguable that there was some awkwardness on the Kelowna big man's part. Wheaton is 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds and was trying to make an approximate 90-degree turn in a tight space.

Should the league decide Lipsbergs paid enough of a penalty with the major/game misconduct, or only assess a two-game ban, it still leaves question. Where is the bar set for having an acceptable amount of risk on those high-speed plays? It's not like there is a desire to make the area of the rink a no-contact zone.

Whatever results from this, it is regrettable to see that happen to Wheaton, whom the Red Wings took No. 139 overall in the NHL draft this summer. The Sherwood Park, Alta., native already required shoulder surgery last season and missed the first seven games of the new season with another injury.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.