Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes lays a hit on Shawn Thornton of the Boston Bruins. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
For lack of a better, appropriate term, crap happens.
It’s crude, harsh and to the point. And it’s also an explanation for a lot – not all, but the majority – of hits in hockey that lead to injury and ensuing outcry.
We all know the arguments. I’m going to say it’s a fast-paced, physical game that can turn bloody at any given moment, because that’s the nature of the beast and the difference between a physical sport and a tactical sport, like baseball. You’re going to tell me there are rules to protect players from serious injuries, pointing out how penalties aren’t being called nearly enough and that the subjectivity of supplemental discipline is a joke. And you’re right.
But I’m right, too.
Recalling my days as a minor hockey official, there’s one kid in particular I think of in debates like these; a tall, lanky, awkward, but strong kid running around peewee house league.
Whenever he’d chase a kid into the corner you’d almost wince at what appeared to be an impending disaster.
He was often penalized, but it was because he was growing into his frame and was unsure that his positioning and knowledge of his own strength were lacking. He was at the age where he was just beginning to learn how to hit. (Mix him with another skater who didn’t understand how to take a hit properly and anything could have happened.)
You had to notice him in the stands, too, especially as a parent of the other team. Everyone in the rink knew what the deal was with this kid and in the few instances where he injured someone as a result of a solid hit, you bet I was being yelled at for not calling a penalty.
But. Crap. Happens.
Did he deserve to be penalized? Not every hit. Did he deserve to be kicked out of minor hockey simply because he was big and physical? Absolutely not. The kid was always smiling and he’d respect the rules enough to not argue with officials or escalate a play post-whistle. He loved the physical outlet, but he wasn’t a goon with an eye to injure.
You can’t throw players under the bus for clean bodychecks – ones you learn how to throw from a young age – just because they lead to injuries. When a player cutting across the middle with his head down gets his block knocked off by a lowered shoulder, it’s an unfortunate, but not necessarily an illegal or inexcusable hit. Penalize them all you want for charging or interference or whatever other infraction may apply in a given situation – and, please, suspend the egregious checks – but you can’t chastise somebody for playing the game the way it was intended.
By suspending players for hits like the ones we’ve seen recently from Dion Phaneuf and Mike Richards, you’re blurring the lines more than you’re defining them. Employing a head shot rule to apply for all hits without any room for discretion puts the blatantly illegal and textbook checks in the same boat. And that doesn’t teach anyone anything.
Isn’t it just as bad if a star sits for laying a textbook bodycheck as it is if a star misses time because he was injured? What exactly is being accomplished there?
The focus of this debate should be on effectively deterring and punishing the elbows, charges, etc., but instead we’re focused on doing everything to prevent injuries and that isn’t right.
Just like the obstruction crackdown, it’s not new rules that need to be made, it’s old ones that need to be tightened.
Send the harsh messages where it’s necessary; everyone will take notice and it will have a significant impact on horrific hits and ones across the middle, without penalizing clean checks. But if you think anything will put an end to hits, dirty or clean, that lead to injury, you’re nuts.
It’s exactly like having that aggressive kid skating around the ice – he could harm somebody at any time, but more often than not everything was fine. He was certainly watched, and when he crossed a line he was penalized, sometimes two minutes, sometimes five – and once booted from the game. He eventually started learning and became less dangerous, but he was a big kid whose nature it was to play physical and you couldn’t tell him that was wrong. No matter what you did besides abolishing him forever, that threat was always there.
Blurring the lines between right and wrong would only confuse the kid and not teach him anything. As long as he’s out there it makes no difference.
Eventually, crap will absolutely happen.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.
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