Hockey is a different breed than most sports. It’s been said that they players resemble linebackers on skates, dishing out pain whenever it is necessary. Fighting has been part of the game since its inception, it is the only sport where fighting is not only allowed but encouraged. It is in game policing. I hit your best player you send out your “specialist,” whap, bam, boom, problem solved. Guys like Scott Stevens, Tie Domi and Ken Danyeko made millions from open ice hits that left your best player in shambles and gathered large ooh’s and ah’s.
Yet the lines of physicality and dirty play can be blurred sometimes. Take for instance the hit Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins received from Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins last Saturday. Cooke laid out Savard with a shoulder check that gave Savard a concussion and left him sprawling on the ice. Cooke was neither penalized during the game by referees or after the game by NHL officials. The hit was a blindside check where Cooke came from behind and hit Savard in the head while Savard attempted a shot. It looked as if was following through with a check and inadvertently caught Savard in the head. No matter the intention of the hit, Savard is done for the season and a huge debate has begun about what is and isn’t safe as far as these type of hits are concerned.
The NHL does not outlaw hits to the head, which in itself is very shocking due to the violent nature of the game. Mike Richards of Philadelphia Flyers was not suspended for a similar check on Florida Panthers forward David Booth earlier in the year which knocked Booth out for 45 games. When looking at both hits though, Richards check was much worse that Cooke’s in my opinion. Richards came up high on Booth at full speed while Cooke just seemed to tap Savard in the jaw. The main issue here is why are these hits considered clean checks?
The NHL has looked into changing the rulebook and outlawing hits to the head like the Cooke and Richards checks. Why it hasn’t happened yet continues to puzzle me. If the league that infamously made a mid-playoff change in honor of Sean Avery and his antics against Martin Broduer can do that, why not change this rule now. Guys like Booth and Savard were important to both the Panthers and Bruins playoff chances and both have been put in jeopardy while Richards and Cooke continue to help their teams make a push.
Bill Guerin, Cooke’s teammate, spoke out about the need for the league to start outlawing these hits, “If a guy gets hurt like that with a shot to the head, there’s got to be something. Actions happen. Guys don’t mean to hurt each other, but they do. You got to pay a price for that.” Guerin is exactly right. These types of hits take away from the quality of the game, and give the game a bad name from the standpoint of senseless violence of behavior.
But can the NHL eliminate these kinds of hits? Guys still skate into the defensive zone with their heads down and leave themselves open to huge checks like the ones mentioned. As back checkers, you are taught from youth hockey to lay out anyone with their head down. Yet as the game has evolved players are bigger, faster and stronger making the checks a lot harder and more dangerous. The framework of a new rule against these types of hits is in the works and should be in place by the beginning of next season. However, will it be enough? Even as I’m writing this, Alex Ovechkin was ejected from a game against Chicago for boarding Brian Campbell who had to be wheeled off of the ice. Who knows what’s going to happen to Ovechkin. It’s the way the NHL is; hard, fast and physical. It’s going to be hard for anyone to change it.