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THN.com Blog: Hits from behind have to stop

This hit by Maxime Talbot on Paul Martin does not belong in the NHL or any other hockey league.

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This hit by Maxime Talbot on Paul Martin does not belong in the NHL or any other hockey league.

Is there a game that goes by without a check from behind anymore?

A player being hit against the boards with their back to the play is the most dangerous form of contact in hockey, and yet the NHL seems like it can’t be bothered to send a strong message about it to its players.

I am not in favor of taking any physical aspect out of the game. Except for this one.

I was a referee for 10 years in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) and no, I don’t wear glasses. Every year at the recertification class, we would have this message pounded into our heads by high-ranking supervisors: Eliminate hitting from behind. Period.

A whole section of the itinerary, and large chunk of the day, was dedicated to the dangers of checking from behind and how seriously we were to approach it.

So if the message being sent in minor hockey is to call and eliminate the hit from behind, why doesn’t the NHL take it more seriously? Honestly, does someone have to become a paraplegic before the league decides to get its act together?

What kind of message is being sent when Ilya Kovalchuk gets one measly game after leaping into Michal Rozsival? Go home, relax, and put on a show at the All-Star Game for us?

For those of you who argue players shouldn’t turn their backs to the play, you’re right, they shouldn’t and they are taking their lives into their hands when they do. But if you see someone with their back turned, you have to do everything you can to stop yourself. And Kovalchuk had plenty of time to make that decision.

For those of you who will point out there are many other hits from behind that go unpunished, you’re also right. But if that’s your reasoning for why Kovalchuk should not have been suspended at all, well, then you’re just spinning your wheels.

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Last night in the Washington-Toronto game, Steve Eminger rammed Alexei Ponikarovsky from behind. He got a two-minute penalty, so kudos to the ref for actually calling it, but that’s just not enough to send a message. Ponikarovsky is now out for six weeks.

When I officiated, the rule of thumb for calling a major penalty on hitting from behind was: Call it if you think to yourself “yikes” and your stomach turns a little. It seems I’m saying that to myself in nearly every NHL game I watch now.

These types of hits come with an automatic one-game suspension in the OMHA. Maybe it should be the same for the pros; although I don’t believe sitting out one game is much of a deterrent relative to the damage hitting from behind can inflict. Each incident should be reviewed and possibly lead to a longer suspension.

By the time I stopped officiating, the new “main” message being sent was to eliminate head checks. The OMHA was proud of the progress it had made on hitting from behind.

Occurrences were dwindling and, therefore, so were injuries.

The battle isn’t over, but at least they are winning.

Unfortunately, the NHL is preoccupied with selling a product with show-stealing stars, so I suppose Kovalchuk’s suspension should be considered a landmark.

Congratulations, Mr. Campbell.

Rory Boylen is THN.com's web content specialist. His blog appears Thursdays.

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