Fine line between dirty and dangerous

DETROIT – Dangerous. That’s the word Teemu Selanne(notes) used to describe Niklas Kronwall(notes) after taking a big hit from him Saturday night in the Anaheim Ducks’ 5-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

Wings coach Mike Babcock is fine with that.

“He is,” said Babcock of Kronwall. “That’s why we like him.”

But dirty? That’s different.

“To say he’s a dirty player is wrong,” Babcock said. “To say he’s dangerous to the opposition at times when he steps up, there’s no question. That’s a fair statement.”

And to Babcock, that’s fair play.

Head shots and concussions are major issues in the NHL. But all the talk of gray matter runs into gray areas. When does dangerous become dirty? Where is the line between legal and illegal, and is that the same line between ethical and unethical? Have rule changes gone far enough, and if not, how do we make the sport safer but not too soft?

There are myriad opinions on each specific incident and the issues as a whole, and they can be shaded by team allegiance, world view or the details of any given play, like the hit Selanne took from Kronwall on Saturday night.

You could argue that Kronwall has found the very edge. Although he has delivered enough devastating shots to earn a reputation as a vicious hitter, he has never been fined or suspended.

“Hitting is part of the game, and I like that part of the game,” said Kronwall, who admits he feels a rush after a clean hit, but no satisfaction in laying out an opponent. “Sometimes you hit, and sometimes you get hit.”

But Babcock said Kronwall isn’t “on the edge at all” because “he’s a clean player,” while Selanne said Saturday night: “That guy is dangerous out there. One of these days, somebody’s going to get him. I know that. It’s just a matter of time when.”

Kronwall isn’t a big hitter because he’s big. As a 6-foot, 192-pound defenseman, he’s a big hitter because he’s a master of timing. He often uses his opponents’ mass and acceleration against them. He smoked Martin Havlat(notes), then of the Chicago Blackhawks, when he caught Havlat with his head down along the boards during the 2009 playoffs.

The Selanne hit was similar, though not as violent. The puck was coming up the right-wing boards in Anaheim’s defensive zone. Selanne was charging after it. Kronwall was playing it.

“I thought he was going to follow through his check,” Kronwall said. “I was just going to take a step and meet the check. Now, he didn’t check me at all, obviously, and that’s what caught him off-guard.”

Kronwall laid his right shoulder into Selanne’s jaw. Unlike Havlat, who collapsed in a heap with a concussion, Selanne staggered for a moment but continued to play. On that everyone agrees.

From there, though, people see the play differently. Kronwall said he used only his shoulder; Selanne said the hit included an elbow. Babcock called it “a hockey play”; Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told reporters that Kronwall “clearly jumped” and “went for his head.”

Carlyle also told reporters that a referee told him he didn’t see an illegal act. No penalty was called, and the league has not disciplined Kronwall. Rule 48, introduced last March, defines an illegal check to the head as “a lateral or blind-side hit.” This hit was from the front. That’s the key distinction, at least to the Wings.

Wings forward Johan Franzen(notes), who suffered a mild concussion when he took an elbow to the jaw Oct. 14 against the Dallas Stars, railed against the recent uptick in head shots around the NHL.

“They’ve got to suspend more guys. If it’s an illegal hit to the head, it should be a suspension,” Franzen said. “There are some guys out there that don’t think twice about hurting someone. It’s those guys who you’ve got to suspend. Otherwise they’re going to keep doing it.”

Asked to define a legal hit to the head, Franzen said: “A shoulder facing a guy. That’s a legal hit.”

Kronwall said he hasn’t had to change his game because of the NHL’s new head-shot rule because he always has tried to hit from the front.

“There’s a lot of different aspects of the hit,” Kronwall said. “Obviously you want to keep your arms down, elbows tucked into your body. I’ve had some problems in the past with leaving my feet. That’s something I’m trying to work on, because obviously that’s something you don’t want to see in the game.”

Even if his hit on Selanne were legal, should Kronwall have passed it up? Selanne’s head was down. Some say players need to show more respect for each other, but others say players have a responsibility to protect themselves. And how is Kronwall supposed to process that moral dilemma in a split-second? If he hits Selanne, he could hurt him. If he doesn’t, he could hurt his team.

The immediate, physical reason for delivering a hit is to separate your opponent from the puck. The subtler, psychological reason is to intimidate your opponents.

“I think Kronwall plays the game well within the rules,” Babcock said. “It’s well-documented. He steps up and he gets on the hunt for people. He does it way more at playoff time. … It makes you aware. Then later in the neutral zone when you should get a pass, you miss it. That’s just hockey.”

Even if Kronwall’s hit on Selanne were legal, should it be in the future? Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser and some leading concussion experts have called for a complete ban on hits to the head. Babcock and Kronwall supported that.

“I don’t think that anyone’s going out there to try to hit someone in the head,” said Kronwall, who has had concussions himself and is as well-spoken off the ice as he is hard-hitting on it. “When you go out there, you just go in and you lead with your shoulder. Obviously we want to get away from all the hits to the head if we can.”

Said Babcock: “If they’re going to make a rule – like in Europe, every time you hit someone in the head, it’s two minutes – I’ve got no problem with that. But I think the game’s physical. I think we could totally out-rule the hits in the head and still have a physical game. What no one wants to lose is the physicality in the game.”

For now, all we have are the rules as they are written and our own opinions. Kronwall will keep stepping up and keep hitting, until someone tells him to stop. He will keep being dangerous.

“As far as my game, I’m going to try to stay the same as much as possible,” Kronwall said. “If I get a suspension, then we’ll look at it from there. If there’s a bad hit, obviously you have to look at it and see what you can do differently. … I don’t think I’m the same kind of player anymore if I’m going out there and being hesitant.”