[Ryan Lambert is covering the NCAA hockey tournament for Puck Daddy; What We Learned returns next week.]
When does an NHL player have to “answer the bell” and fight to atone for his sins?
If he takes liberties with a goalie, like when Milan Lucic freight-trained Ryan Miller? Sure. If he takes out a player with a hit that crossed the line of illegality, and you don’t believe the NHL’s punishment fit that crime? OK, fine, that’ll work.
But the idea that a player should have to fight after a clean hit has been an asinine suggestion, now or in any era. It’s actually depressing, as a fight enthusiast, to witness that Pavlovian reaction in which a hitter gets jumped for having the nerve to combine timing, velocity and his opponent’s vulnerability into a massive, injurious check.
We beg for players to play the game right, to deliver hits that are clean. And then, because the player on the receiving end has name recognition, their reward is accepting fists to the face. Do your job right, do it well, do it within the confines of legality; and then because someone disagreed with the outcome, get punched in the face for it.
On Sunday night, Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins delivered a clean hit on a player with name recognition: Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Toews tried to play the puck on the forecheck; Orpik zoomed in and demolished him with a check to the shoulder that sent Toews into the boards, injuring his shoulder. Orpik exploded into the hit, his skates leaving the ice after impact.
It was a hellacious check by one of the NHL’s best hitters, injuring one of the NHL’s best players. Was it headhunting? No. Was it a defender taking liberties with an opponent? No, unless we’ve redefined any hard check in the game as “borderline.”
As Toews’ teammate Marian Hossa said after the Blackhawks’ loss, "I know him as a fair guy. Obviously, some calls are tougher than others, and sometimes he’s on the borderline."
Hossa’s a thoughtful, fair-minded observer of the game. Which is, of course, everything that Mike Milbury isn’t.
Here’s Mad Mike on NBCSN, saying what you expected him to say about Orpik:
(An aside: While Milbury and Jeremy Roenick are adept at stirring the pot, sometimes with antiquated views, hasn’t hockey coverage on NBCSN reached a point of maturity where we can have a segment or two that isn’t BIG NARRATIVE and instead breaks down the nuances of the game or “hot stove” news? I suggest this without a shred of sarcasm: Wouldn’t our hockey viewing lives be more enriched by shifting Pierre McGuire from the benches to the intermission show?)
"You have a guy who operates on a predatory level, that's Brooks Orpik, but he refuses to fight. He refuses to face the music when it comes to that and the physicality. He makes a conscious choice. He's allowed to do that in this game; you don't have to fight. You can turtle. We've seen that. There's a history of what happens to Brooks Orpik when somebody challenges him, and that happened in Boston.”
(Another aside: "Predatory" is a word Milbury learned when Shanahan used it to suspend Brad Marchand for a hit that Milbury oddly used to impugn Evgeni Malkin later that season. And while we'd never suggest that a professional commentator has it in for one franchise over another, Milbury sure does have a thing for the Penguins, even after Matt Cooke left.)
Milbury’s Boston reference is, of course, about the incident earlier this season when Shawn Thornton of the Boston Bruins assaulted Orpik for a clean hit on Loui Eriksson. Orpik refused to fight, so Thornton slew-footed him, pounded him in the face while Orpik was on the ice and before he was stretchered off. Thornton received a 15-game suspension for his expert enforcement.
Look, Milbury’s one of the hockey media’s leading Neanderthals, even if he’s come around on hits to the head ever since a Bruin’s career ended because of one. (At the hands of a Penguin, no less.)
But he’s just the one that gets to be on TV; there are many others that see Orpik delivering a clean hit and believe he should suffer for it.
Remember Rick Tocchet after the Orpik hit on Eriksson?
“I love Brooks and the way he plays. But, when you play on the edge the way he does, I personally think that you should fight, at least occasionally. I don't think Brooks is a dirty player at all, but when you play that style, you're going to have some borderline hits on occasion. They're impossible to ignore. So I think it would serve him well to fight some of the time,” said Tocchet.
Or Matthew Barnaby after the Eriksson hit?
“Orpik is a big hitter and timed what he thought was a perfectly clean shoulder to chest body check. I tend to agree. Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton do what good captains and great teammates do…They stand up and challenge Orpik for concussing one of their star players. Many feel that you don’t have to answer for clean hits but those are mostly from people that never have laced’em up or have never played at the level that these guys play,” said Barnaby.
I haven’t played in the NHL, this is true. (Their silly requirement for “skating backwards without falling on your ass” was always my undoing.) Perhaps there’s some cosmic awakening that occurs when you skate out for your first pro game, in which the following suddenly seems logical: a guy submits to getting punched in the face for respecting the rules and doing something that, in Orpik’s words on Sunday, happens “10 times a game.”
But here’s the thing for Milbury and his ilk:
What would retribution accomplish here, in this instance?
To teach Orpik, who is paid to hit, not to hit? To teach Orpik, who skates against the Penguins’ most talented opponents, not to hit star players? To send a message to a player the Blackhawks will either see again in the Stanley Cup Final or next fall at the earliest, at the detriment of their rallying for critical points?
But more to the point: What does it accomplish when Orpik was already dropped to the ice, punched in the face and sent off on a stretcher three months ago (!) for delivering a clean hit?
And then, three months later, dared deliver another one?
Is it possible – gasp – that “answering the bell” would simply fulfill some daft notion of justice and not actually accomplish anything of substance?
I respect aspects of The Code, even if its dogma has unraveled as the decrease in fighting has been inversely proportional with a rise in player safety awareness. The protection of star players has always been a facet of it, whether it’s because there’s actual honor to it or because enforcers have to validate their existence.
But Orpik threw a check. He didn’t charge him or target him or attempt to do anything but separate player from puck.
If the Blackhawks or any aggrieved party really wanted to send a message to the Penguins, maybe a hard hit on 87 rather than a fight with 44 would suffice? Because that would seem to impact the game, and the Penguins, more than Brooks bashing.