November 10, 2009
(Ed. Note: Reid Simpson was a 12-year NHL veteran with nine teams, including the New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. With 838 penalty minutes in 301 NHL games, he played a physical brand of hockey. Reid's been keeping up with the hits-to-the-head/supplemental discipline debates and had something to say about it. We offered a forum for an informed, distinct take. Enjoy, comment. )
By Reid Simpson
I can't help but watch hits in today's game, see the suspensions handed out for them and just go, "Wow."
I agree there have been some that were just plain "intent to injure hits," with reckless disregard for the others' safety and health. There have always been players who cross that imaginary fine line, and intent is always the hardest thing to figure out -- the one thing that is always eluding officials when it comes to figuring out how to discipline players for going too far.
Let's use some examples from my career. When I went on the ice, my job was to play good defensively, move pucks forward, play as much as I could in their end, score when I got a chance and get good solid hits every time I could. Many players in the League today have the exact same job description. That's what I was told to do by every coach I ever had in the NHL or any other League, and I was rewarded for it if I did it well -- by more playing time and better contracts. I had a longer career the better I did it.
The irony is how can you ask someone go out, do this job, be the best he can at it and then predict the result of that very fine line of whether he just shook a guy up or injured him?
Does he let him just skate by? How could he predict he was going to knock him out and put him on the shelf for who knows how long?
The kid from the OHL who has been suspended for the year was looking for the hit. I would imagine he was told to play that way if he ever wants to make it, and finished his check hard. Do you think he could predict the result? At the very last millisecond the other kid turned in, the timing was a perfect storm for the resulting injury.
Can we blame the hitter?
Do we blame the game? Or do we just accept the fact that in sports -- and especially pro sports, where life-changing salaries are being fought for daily to get these jobs and keep them -- this is going to happen?
I feel deeply for the family and the player in the OHL. I don't believe it was the intent of the hitter to inflict that kind of injury of that severity. We have all accepted these risks going in. Is it dirty to hit a guy coming through the neutral zone with his head down? Is it dirty when you are finishing your check and at the last millisecond he turns to the boards? The size and speed of the players and the fact that we play in a confined space with walls around us, there are going to be things like happen.
You can't tell a player, "Be stronger, be faster, be more physical" and then punish them when he is. You have had to play the game at that level to understand this.
Now, I haven't even gotten into the fighting part yet. Let me put it this way: I am going to be honest. I played the game under the assumption that I wanted to be as mean, rough, tough as I could be so we won and I could keep my job, but I was fair when it came to injuring another guy.
Not every guy had to play that way to keep his job, but a lot did and still do. I wanted to win every game and every battle I was in, and I wanted to make guys hurt. (In a perfect world only for that night.) The irony, again, is you are asked and paid to live right to the edge every night over and over and never cross it.
How can you have a league that gives you a 5-minute penalty for fighting, but if you knock him out you are made to feel like you went too far? That's what I was trying to do every time, and trust me: The two guys fighting have signed up for it and know the risks and the rewards, so don't ever feel sorry for them because they will never feel sorry for themselves if fair was fair.
This brings me back to intent. Certain things are very black and white: Blatant slashes, crosschecks from behind, sucker punches. But the League has a much tougher time when it comes to the gray areas of all the rest. You can't have contact in the game with the size and speed of these guys these days. Guys are going to get hurt sometimes; just how bad each time is the question.
I just don't believe you can punish players for a resulting injury of their actions, when its part of what they are being asked to do; especially if it's not crystal clear that the intent was there, injury or not.
Reid Simpson is a retired left winger who played in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins. He later went to Russia as a player and, after retirement, an executive with Chekhov Vityaz of the KHL. He currently lives in Chicago.