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Top Shelf: Players have to protect themselves, not hope for penalty

Mike Van Ryn lies on the ice after being hit from behind by Tom Kostopoulos of the Canadiens. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Mike Van Ryn lies on the ice after being hit from behind by Tom Kostopoulos of the Canadiens. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Players don’t respect each other. You hear it all the time, usually following an incident where one player whacks or thumps another in a fashion that makes you think it’s true.

After listening to some of the fallout following Tom Kostopoulos of Montreal hitting Toronto’s Mike Van Ryn from behind, I’m starting to wonder if the problem doesn’t go deeper than players respecting each other. I’m starting to wonder if players respect themselves.

No issue consolidates the hockey world like hitting from behind. Whether you’re a Don Cherry disciple or somebody who believes every player should have a Dany Heatley visor, everyone can agree on the fact no player should be hit when he is defenseless.

So in the aftermath of Kostopoulos laying what was clearly an illegal and troubling check on Van Ryn, all the league-wide chatter was about how this kind of hit has to be eliminated from the game, right?

Uh, not really.

There was all kinds of talk – from players, fans and media – about the degree to which Van Ryn turned his back, the fast-paced nature of the game and the fact Kostopoulos was just trying to get in and lay a hard, legal hit on the defenseman, something his fourth-liner job description explicitly requires him to do.

I think there’s some validity to a lot of those points, but one thing Calgary blueliner Adrian Aucoin said caught my attention above all others.

“There’s lots of players out there who are notorious for giving you their back so you can hit them,” said Aucoin during an interview with TSN.

So let me get this straight: There are players in the best hockey league in the world who believe putting themselves in a perilously vulnerable position is a good idea because it might draw a penalty?

Unbelievable.

I can swallow a little swan dive as a method of trying to incite the referee to call a penalty, but knowingly putting yourself in danger so the good players on your team get to go out for a man advantage?

Find another niche.

Maintaining proper body position is probably one of the most important techniques a player – especially defensemen – can learn. Mastery of that art is a big part of why Nicklas Lidstrom had to build a backyard shed to house all his Norris Trophies.

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But proper body position goes well beyond your ability to angle people to corners; it’s about entering those same corners in a manner that allows you to get hit without your face absorbing the blow. And it’s certainly about not stopping two feet from the boards – the most dangerous spot on any ice surface – with your back to the play in hopes somebody will commit a penalty-worthy push.

Forecheckers down low routinely face the glass and stick their butt out toward the play as a method of protecting the puck. It’s basically become a variation of standing behind the net and using the cage as cover.

There’s obviously a little less danger involved in that play because there is less motion, but anytime you’re facing somebody in Row 6 and not the person who’s coming to hit you, there’s a chance bad things could result.

Bodychecking is every bit as much about knowing how to take a hit as give one. Trying to escape contact can be one of the surest ways to make it more lethal. Players who’ve made millions off their natural ability still work on basic skills like shooting and passing all the time. Maybe more practice time should be devoted to how to protect those valuable bodies.

There is an onus on players to recognize when a fellow skater is in a genuinely vulnerable position, but we can’t have people out there dialing up disaster by always showing you their numbers.


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 Fridays.

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

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