Thursday, 27 November 2008

Changing The Focus

I never played junior hockey and I've never played professional hockey. I can't tell you what the players at these levels are taught, but you always seem to hear the same cliché used over and over at these levels: "You have to finish your checks". I believe this very phrase is the reason we have a large number of hitting-from-behind penalties being seen at the NHL level right now. It happened earlier this week when LA's John Zeiler crushed Colorado's Adam Foote from behind, and it happened again last night when Edmonton's Steve Staios hammered LA's Patrick O'Sullivan from behind. If "finishing your check" means serving a suspension, why do coaches press their players to "finish their checks" when 90% of players don't know what purpose bodychecking serves in hockey?

As pictured above, more and more players are looking for the momentum-swinging, helmet-popping, stuck in the trolley-tracks kind of hit. Scott Stevens was very good at finding these hits, and literally made a name for himself because of it. There's nothing wrong with these types of hits, and it certainly isn't forgotten by the players when it occurs.

However, the opposite is also true when a player gets stapled into the boards from behind by a player "finishing his check". Patrice Bergeron? We remember him lying on the ice after being crushed by Randy Jones last season. After the October 27, 2007 game, Jones made the following statement:

"Words really can’t express the way that I feel right now. I am very apologetic for the hit and what I did. It was not intentional. It is something that I have never done before and it is not part of my character. I am extremely sorry. I hope he does ok and everything works out for him. I wish him nothing but the best in his recovery."

I completely believe Jones did not intend to hurt Bergeron whatsoever. However, he was doing what he had been taught throughout his life - "finish your check". And that's what needs to change in today's hockey world. "Finish your check" has lead to a number of checks from behind this season as Ryan Hollweg can attest to. How can this be fixed? What needs to be done?

Removing bodychecking is simply not an option. However, the purpose of the bodycheck needs to be clarified and taught to players at a young age. Originally, the bodycheck was used in hockey to separate puck-carrier from puck. It was not meant to injure, and it was not meant to intimidate. Yes, some players were more adept at bodychecking and used it to make themselves more intimidating (the "Scott Stevens" effect), but bodychecking was used to separate puck from puck-carrier.

This is important to know because open-ice hits were still plentiful, but the bodycheck was used as a tool, not as punishment. With the evolution of players in the NHL over the last 50 years, bigger and faster have resulted in more injuries. While evolution cannot be blamed, the mentality that a bodycheck should serve as punishment for playing the puck can and should be blamed for the dangerous hits from behind. "Finishing your check" is precisely that mentality.

"It's just my nature to play that way, so it's hard to say [to] not to play that way," Leafs' forward Ryan Hollweg said to the National Post's Michael Traikos after being suspended for hitting St. Louis' Alex Piertrangelo from behind. "It's been about 20 years of playing hard-nosed and then all of a sudden someone's telling me to take it down. Some way I'm going to adjust to it."

Therein lies the problem. For 20 years, people have been telling Hollweg to finish his checks, and he's parlayed that advice into an NHL career. However, after repeated boarding calls and mandatory suspensions for those hits, Hollweg either isn't getting the message, or the NHL isn't sending one. For all those who have been hit from behind, the danger of "finishing your check" is real.

"This is a sport where you assume a lot of risk," Bruins' GM Peter Chiarelli told Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe after the Jones-on-Bergeron incident. "But you don't assume you're going to be driven from behind like that."

I believe Chiarelli is exactly right. Watch Toronto's Mike Van Ryn look back to see who is coming before getting drilled from behind by Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos:

Kostopoulos finished his check, and Van Ryn is out for a month with injuries. There was absolutely no attempt to play the puck, so Kostopoulos' hit was entirely unnecessary aside from following his coach's instructions to finish his checks. I don't think Van Ryn ever assumed he was going to be pasted against the boards like he was, and never had time to brace himself for the hit. Again, with no attempt to play the puck, this was simply throwing a hit for the sake of throwing the hit.

Do we need to start reminding NHL players with the stop sign patches like they use in youth hockey? If you see a player's numbers, let up and play the puck! That's the entire point of the game, so why are you slamming someone into the boards from behind like a bug hits a windshield on the highway?

"There seems to be no filter," Maple Leafs' head coach Ron Wilson said to the National Post's Michael Traikos of Hollweg after being suspended. "If he looks up and sees a guy's numbers, he should really be thinking about pulling up. It's going to be up to him to figure that out or he's not going to be playing many games."

Look at the number of hits-from-behind thus far this season:

- Rostislav Olesz (FLA) on Chris Lee (NYI) in the preseason.
- Ryan Hollweg (TML) on Jay McKee (STL) in the preseason.
- Ryan Hollweg (TML) on Sergei Kostitsyn (MTL).
- Ryan Hollweg (TML) on Alex Pietrangelo (STL).
- Andrei Kostitsyn (MTL) on Matt Stajan (TML).
- Tom Kostopoulos (MTL) on Mike Van Ryn (TML).
- Andrei Markov (MTL) on Niklas Hagman (TML).
- Colton Gillies (MIN) on Ryan Johnson (VAN).
- John Zeiler (LAK) on Adam Foote (COL).
- Steve Staios (EDM) on Patrick O'Sullivan (LAK).
- Sean Avery (DAL) on Milan Lucic (BOS).
- Ben Eager (CHI) on Mikhail Grabovski (TML).

We haven't even played two months of the season, and those are just the hits I could find sifting through the NHL scoresheets. Is it really that difficult to teach young players to use the bodycheck as a defensive tool instead of using it as a way to decimate a player's career?

The excuse of a player turning his body is getting old. Everyone in the world turns away from danger in order to protect themselves. This is just a reaction. If we didn't, there would be a much better selection of candidates for the annual Darwin Awards. It's a reaction to potential harm, and people can't be blamed for protecting themselves.

Rehab counselors always say that you control your reaction to someone else. I believe this to be true in that you are responsible for your actions. In hockey, if you can see both numbers on the back of a player at the same time from any angle, you need to let up. It's the only way that hitting-from-behind penalties will stop aside from long suspensions and ridiculous fines.

And if the players can't control themselves, the NHL should institute long suspensions and ridiculous fines for those committing these dangerous hits. When will it someone send a message about the dangers of hitting from behind? Do we need to see someone break their neck or, worse, become paralyzed?

"The game today is better in a lot of areas," New Jersey Devils' head coach Brent Sutter said to's Jim Kelley after seeing his son, Brandon Sutter, injured with a hit to the head. "But in some areas, it's not and it's troublesome. There is a lack of respect for opponents' players. It's the way the game is played today, and there are significant injuries. It is what it is."

Leafs' general manager Cliff Fletcher echoed the lack-of-respect sentiments of Sutter after the Kostopoulos-on-Van Ryn hit. "I do know these hits seem to be happening more often," he said to Terry Koshan of Sun Media. "Going back 10 and 20 years, there never were hits from behind. Players have less respect for others today."

Ryan Johnson, one of the men victimized by a questionable hit this season, had a lot to say regarding the league's stance on these types of hits and what needs to be done. "The league needs to make players pay a price," he said to Jim Jamieson of The Province. "It shouldn't be about waiting for the result of the injury before they decide if they're going to penalize the guy.

"I hate the fact that we always wait for an incident to happen before we change the rules. If you start giving five to 10 games for even the hit the guy gets up from but is still preventable, guys will stop doing it. Let's not wait for somebody to break their neck."

Finally, someone has the gonads to say it - someone will get seriously injured, and the NHL will react rather than being proactive to ensure this type of thing never happens. Why is the NHL so afraid to protect its most marketable assets: its players?

Start making examples out of the Ryan Hollwegs and John Zeilers and Steve Staioses. Personally, any hit from behind will be worth a minimum suspension of ten games. If you are unable to control your body while on skates, you won't be on skates for very long. As for the respect portion of the equation, there is simply no right answer for how to breed respect amongst men who are asked to kill each other on a nightly basis.

But the best way to plant the seeds of respect is to have players protect the livelihood of one another. Hitting from behind is just too dangerous to have in the sport with the speed the players move at now, and the NHL and NHLPA are in agreement about this.

We just need them to start acting like they believe in that statement. Perhaps they should learn how to finish their checks?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: