Imagine for a moment that you were Gary Bettman and you wanted hitting gone from hockey. How would you go about it? For starters, you would have to make players far less interested in hitting, and that’s no easy feat. You have to make the cost of hitting higher than the reward — higher than the great feeling of delivering punishment, higher than the feeling of making statements for your team and higher even than elevating your value through this kind of play. The consequences would have to make it simply not worth it any more.
And guess what? Between the almost certain discipline that follows later and the almost certain on-ice challenge that follows immediately, it seems we’re almost there.
Regarding the discipline frenzy we’ve seen lately, the recent suspension of Mark Borowiecki for hitting Cody Eakin marked a point of no return as we crossed into a place where virtually any hit can receive a suspension. Now, I’m not here arguing that Borowiecki is a clean player or that he hasn’t been suspension-worthy in the past; we’re talking about one play here, removing our emotional reactions to study the play itself, not the people, and looking at the realities of a high speed contact sport on ice.
Head angles move constantly and skate blades shift in micro-seconds to alter lines of intersection, all while players are visually tracking the puck and the other players moving around them at high speeds — gauging and predicting, responding to coaching expectations and a lifetime of teaching that tells them they must make contact.
Critics make it sound easy to target and hit precise parts of the body while avoiding the head, as if it’s all done in slow motion with the benefit of a monitor guiding you into the hit, as if you don’t also need to visually track the puck to make sure it’s still with the player you’re hitting, and as if you don’t also need to track all the players flying around you in this moment.
If you’ve played even a little beer league hockey, you get a sense of what it might actually be like, though a much slower sense, for sure. George Parros certainly knows what it’s like, which makes it even more inexplicable that he can hold a player accountable for such contact. Is social media influencing the Department of Player Safety’s decisions these days? Many argue that it is.
Whatever the case, I have no doubt most players would agree that there is no way to hit in today’s NHL and be sure it won’t end up illegal. And that climate provides the first nail in the contact coffin. The second involves the immediate consequences.
NHL fans today are the same as they’ve ever been. They still like the old school reality of players maintaining “order” and respect in the game through accountability. Fighting, enforcing and intimidation all have their necessary role in the game. It’s a contact sport and fans want it to be; but there’s much more than meets the eye to that contact, and it takes years as a fan and usually some experience playing the game to fully understand that. The last thing I’m here to argue for is the elimination of fighting, and those who do are simply ignorant.
At the same time, there are some routine situations involving fighting that today’s fans have lost their appetite for – not because such fights are not entertaining – but because fans want to respect their beloved sport as much as they want to enjoy it, and they want hockey to rise sublimely above other sports as they know it should.
As it stands, one commonly accepted practice keeps hockey from achieving the lofty status it rightfully deserves. And it’s a practice that simply cannot be justified to fans of other sports, let alone fans of hockey. Now, before you rise in revolt over the notion that hockey fans should care what others think – God forbid even football or basketball fans – the reality is that a sport’s legitimacy, marketability and status is measured in relation to other sports. And as much as we puck-heads might hate to admit it, we do want the feeling of superiority that comes from knowing one’s sport is not merely the most intense and glorious, but also the most logically defensible.
What is this inappropriately ritualized practice in our great game? It’s the practice of expecting a player to “answer the bell” after delivering a legitimate, though brutal, hit — the price of playing the right way. If someone gets hit hard, even cleanly, a teammate is expected to “step up” — by GMs, coaches, players, fans and even by pundits and commentators.
Let’s start with the fact that even to pull off a good hit is nowhere as easy as many professional hockey players make it look. It takes excellent skating, impeccable timing, vision, and the temperament for hard contact at the very least. Delivering a good hit cleanly is so difficult that we celebrate and admire those who can do it. And doing so in today’s climate of player safety is almost impossible.
And let’s not even debate hitting’s overall role in the game. A good hit can change momentum and affect the outcome of a game. In fact, the art of the hit is so central and critical that hockey players are taught at a young age both to give and receive hits, and it is an art that few master truly well.
But we come here to the most pitiful irony in the game: in return for dutifully absorbing and applying their coaches’ teachings, mastering the art of hitting at a level that few achieve in the sport, in return for helping their team by delivering an effective hit, players are “rewarded” by having to fight whenever they demonstrate this skill, and especially when they do it very well. And when that blatantly illogical consequence is the status quo, something’s very wrong.
We all know there’s a macho code that players will honor in such situations. Few want to be known for not answering the bell. Even Alexander Semin, rather than bowing out, unleashed one of the most entertaining if not hard-hitting slap-attacks in history upon the bewildered Marc Staal. But all fun aside, such senseless bell-answering, particularly by skilled players rather than “enforcers,” leads to costly injuries far more often than it leads to anything positive. When you’ve paid $100 to see the greatest players on the ice, but they’re not there because their hand is broken, that just flat out stinks.
And if the built-in lack of logic isn’t clear enough, add this into the mix: the NHL deems fighting not only worthy of a penalty, but a five minute major, at least seeming to send the message that fighting is not o.k. and will not go unpunished. So far so good.
But wait – if you deliver a legitimate and effective hit, one that benefits your team even, you are actually expected to commit this major infraction, therefore incurring not only the five-minute consequence, but the possibility of a major injury? So what’s the message here? – that some rules are meant to be broken, at the very least.
Remember, we’re not talking about fighting in general here, but about a specific failing of the game – that a player should be expected to fight for performing a legal play.
Today’s fans simply require – and deserve – more logic.
Let’s put it in perspective: is the MLS’s Laurent Ciman supposed to fight when he executes a perfect slide tackle? Is Texans’ J.J. Watt obligated to rip off his helmet and fight after making the perfect sack while the refs look on impassively as if the fight, not the play itself, is a routine part of the game’s action? Is it incumbent on Hassan Whiteside to fight after stuffing a lay-up attempt?
Clearly not – because it’s insane to pretend fighting would be part of the game in these cases.
About the closest comparison is in baseball: if Buster Posey stands in against a runner coming home, engaging in a collision to tag the runner out, his coach, teammates and fans would applaud. And sometimes collisions like this do erupt in brawls, but how often? And at what cost? Certainly more than five minutes “in the box.”
Today’s NHL fans love the sport with the same passion they always have, but they also know intellectually that “their game” is better than the others, and they want to own the high ground as well. They don’t want to be in the position of having to defend the indefensible. Like the greatest hockey players, the greatest fans are also smart. It’s time for the NHL to wake up to this fact before too many fans bail in disgust.