October 26, 2009
When, exactly, did Willie Mitchell's(notes) devastating check on Jonathan Toews(notes) earn a spot on the dishonor roll of illegal and immoral hits that are turning the NHL into a collection of concussed mush-brained zombies, one blast at a time?
Yet there it is, as Exhibit Q in Adam Proteau's column on The Hockey News Web site titled "League insufficiently punishing dangerous hits." But that's what the "we must protect the players!" crowd does best when there's a slew of incidents that allegedly involve the kind of over-the-line violent checks that are shredding the fabric of decency in professional ice hockey: The critics blur the line between the egregious, despicable acts (See: Tuomo Ruutu(notes) on Darcy Tucker(notes)) and the hockey plays that happen to spotlight the violence in a violent game (See: Mike Richards on David Booth).
Look, the lines are sometimes blurred by the nature of the plays themselves. Like Ryan Lambert wrote here this morning, no two hits -- even in the same weekend of action -- are alike. Watching that Rob Scuderi hit on Jason Chimera a dozen times, we still can't figure out what Scuderi was attempting to do and how, by the letter of the NHL law, there wasn't a clipping call on the play.
Were the lines blurred on the Richards hit? We don't believe so, but Proteau and fellow Hockey News scribe Ken Campbell argue otherwise, which brings us back to the heart of the debate: What constitutes a "hockey play," and whether these plays should be outlawed for the sake of player safety?
Proteau hints at damnation of the Richards hit without damning it, and feels that the NHL's lack of supplemental discipline creates an atmosphere for frontier justice to occur when the Philadelphia Flyers meet the Florida Panthers on Dec. 21. It's a game that you'll probably pay more attention to as a fan because there's an atmosphere for frontier justice, but that's also Proteau's point:
If only [the players] were governed by a sheriff who did something other than (a) profit off their broken bodies and (b) lean on logic-free justifications to keep players in permanent vigilante mode, they might leave the meting out of justice to the institutions of authority where they belong.
Campbell sees to the institutions of authority as the problem. In his column on the Richards hit -- which mentions that Richards did not receive an "intent to injure" penalty and could have his game misconduct rescinded by the NHL -- Campbell explains why the NHL found it unworthy of further discipline:
The NHL maintains Richards did not leave his feet until after the hit, like that's supposed to make a difference. It did not consider the hit a late hit because it has established that, based on there being 30 frames in a second, anything happening 20 frames or more after the player passes the puck is considered a late hit. The Richards hit was exactly 14 frames, or less than a half a second, after Booth dished off the puck. Booth was not considered an unsuspecting player and it was deemed Richards didn't target his head.
Nobody is suggesting Richards goes out to hurt people, but there are few players in the league who actually do. What almost all of them are guilty of, however, is reckless play. But apparently the NHL, which is scared to death you'll take all physicality out of the game if you institute a head-shot rule, has no problem with reckless play.
The Richards hit again; was this reckless? Was it too close to call, as Bangin Panger wonders?
We don't believe it was. It's an open ice check with the shoulder that made contact with the head, and Richards -- a Selke nominee for best defensive forward, lest we forget -- was attempting to stop Booth from gaining speed in the zone, take the puck away or both. Booth dishes the puck to the far side of Richards, who is coming at such a velocity that he can't avoid contact (not that he wanted to, mind you).
To us, this is no dirtier than Mitchell on Toews, which is to say it isn't dirty in the least; outside of the fact that, unlike Toews, Booth had released the puck.
But Toews didn't leave on a stretcher. Booth did. Aesthetics are important. Is the Scuderi hit just a wonderful highlight if Chimera wasn't busted open, or if there weren't photos showing him "listening to the ice" after being dropped on his head? Of course not. The NHL catches hell from fans when it penalizes the end result of actions rather than the actions themselves, but those demonizing the Richards play are doing just that.
Unless, as Campbell argues, anything involving the head should be outlawed. From Scott Burnside of ESPN:
At some point, the end result of these dangerous plays has to be factored into how or whether the NHL will curtail the mayhem on the ice. Yes, it's a physical game, but the NHL Players' Association was on to something last season when it asked for a special penalty to be assessed when a player is hit in the head while in a vulnerable position, regardless of whether the hit is technically legal.
"Technically legal." What wonderful, passive aggressive phrasing. Actually, the term is "legal," which is what hits like the Richards' check will hopefully remain.
Look, we generally agree with Proteau and Campbell and Burnside on a great many things. We're all for increased penalties for players who intend to injure an opponent's head with a cheap shot, like an elbow behind the play for example. But we're not buying the Richards hit as being anything cheap or anything that should be outlawed in the NHL, despite the physical repercussions from it.
We simply allow for, and expect, a certain amount of carnage and collateral damage in Our NHL. Call us bloodthirsty, call us old school; but we agree with Flyers GM Paul Holmgren:
"Young David Booth(notes), turned his head, it looks like he saw him at the last second and as he turned his head, his head took the blow or it would have been a shoulder-on-shoulder hit. It's a physical game and sometimes those things happen."
Indeed. The problem is that when they happen, they're all too quickly grouped in with the real plague on the NHL, which are completely irresponsible plays like Ruutu's hit on Tucker -- not hockey plays like Richards on Booth.