• The Broad Street Bullies Were Soft

    by  • May 4, 2014 • Hockey • 39 Comments

    If you’re reading this website, hockey’s probably a constant in your life. I’d guess that you’re watching 40+ games per year. This is a website for obsessives, people for whom just watching a pile of hockey games isn’t enough.

    One of the results of that is that changes can happen so incrementally that you don’t even notice them. I was reminded of this today after PK Subban ducked out on a hit from Shawn Thornton.

    The puck comes to PK, he dumps it in, he tries to avoid the hit that has no chance of separating him from the puck (plus he’s in a vulnerable position if he does get hit) and Thornton, who isn’t in the NHL if he doesn’t make that hit, goes into the boards.

    It’s reminiscent of Dan Carcillo taking a run at Nail Yakupov last season which Yakupov ducked after moving the puck on, leading to this memorable Ed Olczyk freakout.

    There’s a school of thought out there that you can’t duck out on a guy trying to finish his check on you after the puck’s gone. My response to this is: “Why not?” Those of us who played hockey at a level involving hitting will recall that when we were taught how to take and receive a check, we were taught that you don’t duck out. That’s fine and sensible but it’s at least partly premised on the idea that you’d, you know, have the puck when you were taking the hit.

    To my eye, hitting has evolved in hockey from something that you do to separate a player from the puck to something you’re allowed to do to do to someone who has the puck (and for a little while afterwards). Don’t believe me? Who’s the most famously violent team in NHL history? The Broad Street Bullies, right? I went and watched about three minutes of one of their games in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1975 against the Buffalo Sabres. That’s when the hockey would be at its most intense, right? Here’s a snippet. The Flyers have Orest Kindrachuk (26), Don Saleski (11) and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz on the ice.

    I’ve done one second freeze frames where I think a guy would have either a) been hit in today’s NHL or b) been hit a lot harder than he was.

    Pick whoever you think the softest team in the NHL is: they would physically destroy that Flyers team. At least until the fights and stick swinging started.

    There’s a concept known as the ratchet effect that comes up in a couple of different fields. I’m most familiar with it in the context of civil liberties. There’s a crisis, civil liberties get restrained but they don’t return to where they were before after the crisis passes. Another crisis and they’re restrained further. The next thing you know, people who would have publicly denounced East Germany opening citizens’ mail are arguing that it’s necessary for governments to suck up data from telecoms.

    I’ve got a suspicion that in hockey, you’ve had 35 years of coaches since Fred Shero pushing for more finishing of hits, ratcheting things up. As video technology has gotten better, they’ve got the ability to isolate what a player does very easily, identifying every hit that’s passed up and hammering home to their players that they need to make those hits. We didn’t go from Don Saleski cruising past the Sabres D who has just passed the puck at the 32 second mark in that video to Brent Seabrook knocking out David Backes overnight – if we had, people would have noticed and there would have been an uproar.

    Instead it changed by degrees. To add another metaphor, it’s like a frog being boiled, who doesn’t realize that the temperature of the water is rising. This has been going on while hockey’s been cutting out the cartoonish violence that kind of turned the sport into a joke in the mid-1970s.

    If the “Don’t duck a hit” rule arises from a time when a bodycheck really was a way to separate a man from the puck, I’m not so sure that it’s a moral imperative when hitting’s become a punishment for having touched the puck, a price that the other team is allowed to extract from you. The circumstances in which the rule was formed no longer exist. Rather than PK Subban or Nail Yakupov allowing themselves to be hammered when they’ve got time to (mostly) evade the check, why isn’t there some onus on the hitter to protect himself? If hitting has evolved to the point that it’s a tactic in and of itself, surely there has to be some responsibility on the hitter not to launch himself into a hit when the target can evade him.

    That this should be our conclusion is, I think, underlined by the identity of the guys throwing these hits and the guys receiving them. It’s the guys receiving them that people come to the rink to see. Getting hit is part of the game and should be part of the game but, at the same time, the NHL should want the Yakupovs and Subbans of the world to be able to avoid truly pointless contact. If the result of that is that some guy like Shawn Thornton or Dan Carcillo destroys a shoulder or a leg going for a late hit, well, that’s the risk they take when they throw it.

    They’re free to not try and throw the hit. If they choose to do so, contrary to the norms of hockey from previous times, they shouldn’t be allowed to avail themselves of the protections that developed in those times.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com


    39 Responses to The Broad Street Bullies Were Soft

    1. Red Ned
      May 4, 2014 at

      Eloquent. I agree. My perspective is of someone who has come to this great game in middle age after a lifetime of immersion in another ‘heavy’ sport, Australian Rules Football (I have had a rapid descent into the obsessive state referred to in first paragraph). I think that being able to get out of the hit once you’ve passed on the puck is as much a tactic as hitting after the puck has gone. In aussie rules footy, a tackle laid on after the ball is gone is penalised. I like the fact that hockey allows it, as long as it is still part of the same play (ie think of it as affecting the disposal of the puck by its prospective nature, the actual hit is in this sense a mere sequel to the main purpose of the check). I think, however, that you are surrendering to the meatheads if you force skilled players to make themselves a target. That is an abuse of their skill.

    2. May 4, 2014 at

      Great article Tyler. I think that this progression of hitting later and later also has given people the perception that hockey was cleaner in the 80′s. Those fans believe that it was because of fighting – you know, that whole “policing” thing. But I think your analysis is closer to the truth, that players looked out for each other and that hitting was a strategy for getting the puck back in their possession. Today it’s about destroying an opponent.

      • May 19, 2014 at

        Heh. Hockey was much, much dirtier in the 1980s than it is now. There may not have been as many “blowing the player up” hits, but the stick-swinging, hits from behind, and knee-on-knee shots were far more prevalent.

    3. Ross
      May 4, 2014 at

      The interesting thing about that Philly video is that the Flyers are able to keep the puck in and keep the forecheck pressure on the Sabres without throwing the “big hit”. On at least a couple of occasions, passing up on the hit (Saleski at 0:30) means they’re in position to make a play on the puck moments later (0:35). Run the guy and you’re out of the play, easy D possession, probably a clearance. Looks like the Bullies were playing in the Corsi Hockey League.

      • Spak
        May 4, 2014 at

        Malkin is like this. He has the skillset and timing that he could really be a wrecking ball out there but he passes the hit almost all the time. He also seems to get a lot of turnovers in the offensive zone….

    4. Gerard
      May 4, 2014 at

      Interesting post, what role do you think the advances in body armor have in this? Most players have no helmets and I sense that back then delivering the check might have been more painful than today

    5. Bruce McCurdy
      May 4, 2014 at

      Got the ’75 Flyers sussed out in a three-minute sample, eh? :)

      Of Fred Shero’s many aphorisms, perhaps the most famous was “take the shortest route to the puck carrier and arrive there in ill humour”. It became famous because the Flyers played that way an awful lot of the time. Obviously in this particular sequence that wasn’t happening (interested to know context like score and time of game), but if you look a little harder I daresay you’ll find a counter example or two. They were a particularly ruthless squad on their home ice.

    6. Tyler Dellow
      May 4, 2014 at

      This is with the score tied at the start of a playoff game. Exactly the time I’d be expecting the lower lines to get their licks in. 3/4 lines wouldn’t pass up all these hits in an NHL game.

      “Arrive in ill humour” may well have meant something different in 1975 than it does in 2014.

      • Bruce McCurdy
        May 6, 2014 at

        I was around in 1975, and saw a lot more than a three-minute sample of the Flyers and their mayhem. Tough hits were a big part of their approach. Obviously other forms of mayhem were as well.

        • Tyler Dellow
          May 6, 2014 at

          The thing is: I don’t trust your brain’s ability to sort it all out. I actually have phenomenal respect for your memory – you’ll recall that time I was able to find a game that you and your dad went to in St. Louis based on a few details you correctly remembered.

          I don’t trust anyone’s ability to properly contextualize games from 40 years ago against today though. My general sense whenever I see old games today is that nobody’s doing anything at near the speed or physicality of today. This video clip is consistent with that.

    7. Kevin
      May 4, 2014 at

      Coaches don’t need video to know who is and isn’t finishing their checks. Difference is pre- and post-helmet eras. Different game. Regardless that’s the way game is played today. Thornton has right to expect Subban won’t duck. The hittee doesn’t have to stand there and take a hit. He can avoid a hit. Side step it. Then the guy doesn’t flip over him. If, like you said was the case yesterday, it’s not bang bang, he has time to. What if a guy with the puck sees a hit coming? Can he duck then? Ducking is a dangerous play. And the less skilled players you have no concern for, aren’t the only ones who finish their checks.

    8. May 4, 2014 at

      I agree entirely. I watched some of Game 7 of the 1974 Flyers/Rangers Game 7 (available in its entirety on YouTube) before this year’s, and there was substantially less contact than there would be in an ordinary regular season NHL game today.

    9. Murat
      May 4, 2014 at

      I don’t even care what you said about hockey. Fake Empire was not only the perfect choice in title/theme for your article, but it is my favourite song that I have ever heard a band play live. What a surprising and great combination!

    10. Hockeyfan
      May 5, 2014 at

      Excellent column. Excellent replies.
      But I don’t understand that hubub over Subban ducking. Why would a guy take a licking when he doesn’t have to? I’m a Bruins fan and I have zero sympathy for Thornton.

      • Guy LaFlower
        May 6, 2014 at

        I agree with you. Subban was also in follow through on a dump in and a few feet from the boards. Very vulnerable position with a player bearing down. A hit there and he would likely have been smashed into the boards if not concussed. Tyler is exactly right in that the hitter needs to be smart enough to protect himself.

    11. May 5, 2014 at

      Related – I was watching a game recently and it struck me just how time and energy is expended on checks that don’t materially impact the play in any way. I wondered what would happen if a coach came out and told his team “guys…you don’t have to finish your check every time. The puck and what is happening in the play is way more important”.

    12. Chris
      May 5, 2014 at

      I agree completely. Ken Dryden had a piece a while back (either on Grantland or in the Globe and Mail) in which he also argued that the original idea of checking, to separate someone from the puck, had been distorted over time. He thought the “finishing your check” idea had to go, largely to prevent head injuries.

    13. Kyle
      May 5, 2014 at

      Listen to Eddie Olczyk’s comments in the link below. While he didn’t duck per se, Mike Richards is trying to move the puck and Adam McQuaid tried to take Richards head off with his elbow. Richards saw him a split second before contact and McQuaid goes head/thrust elbow first into the boards. Maybe it is because Richards is not against the boards but Olcyzk didn’t seem to have an issue in this case.


    14. FastOil
      May 5, 2014 at

      If players aren’t obligated to fight anymore (or the aggressor should leave them alone in today’s NHL culture) why should they be obligated to take a hit, especially late?

      This is about money and the league largely abrogating it’s responsibility toward players and the rules. It’s almost comical they are so bush league so often.

      As more money has come into the game, players and teams push the envelope. It has been happening for decades as eras move forward. Now guys that might have careers in prison if not for making the NHL can become millionaires by being willing to hurt better players. Why wouldn’t they, many likely don’t have much empathy anyway.

      It’s the same reason the dead puck era probably evolved. A lot at stake as revenues and salaries escalated, the league didn’t step up to enforce the rules when the lesser teams and players began cheating to gain an edge. The quality of play devolved.

      Does any other league allow the fringers and hacks to go after the best players? Hockey is a contact sport but allowing cheap shot artists and dangerous play is a different story. I wonder if the NHL realizes that the majority of fans probably don’t want to watch guys get injured or blown up (I like a hard check but not devastating hits), and that losing PK Subban or the like to injury and Thornton and his ilk getting to play on is almost certainly a financial loss?

      If the league decides it values skill and high end play more than the over competitive carnage it will change in a few months.

    15. Bradley
      May 5, 2014 at

      For what it’s worth, Thornton did a spot with Boston radio this morning and said that after viewing a replay of the Subban hit (collision?) he didn’t really have a problem with it.

    16. JR97
      May 5, 2014 at

      It’s interesting to see how the game has evolved. I recently watched Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals and one of the things that really stood out was that players weren’t always trying to get in the “obligatory” hit once the puck was gone. Nor were there stupid scrums and face washes in the crease after every save. I get the whole play with passion and “care” and all that stuff. How finishing a somewhat late check and causing sh*t in the crease after the whistle became synonymous with caring and playing with passion is beyond me.

    17. Mike
      May 5, 2014 at

      Part of the reason for a differential in the frequency and severity of hitting may also be related to the roles of the players, conditioning, speed of the game / athletes and changes in equipment to name a few. To make a simple comparison is a bit faulty, but an interesting look at something that is very difficult to quantify. Guys do seem to be hitting hard, high and late more often compared to other periods in the sports past, but then again how much of the game resembles what it was even 30 years ago?

    18. Mark
      May 5, 2014 at

      Nice article, surprisingly fair comments. Much better than the crap by the supposed hockey experts on big media sport sites.
      I like that someone remembers it used to be called body checking and its purpose was to turnover the puck; nostalgically remembering when all checking was to turnover the puck.
      While that era and Philly and Boston had reputations, it was more for the stick work, elbowing and subsequent fighting. Hitting, as we know it now, was almost none existent. The big crushing hits came when someone was caught skating with his head down. With less gear, harder glass, and players skating more upright with sticks at the ready it was almost as painful for the hitter as the target.

    19. Crest
      May 5, 2014 at

      The difference is the helmet. Just as there was no head-to-head contact in football before helmets (real helmets, not those leather things from the 20′s), there wasn’t ramming players into the boards because that was a good way to break someone’s skull. They may have wanted to beat up the other team, but not cripple or kill them.

    20. Brian
      May 5, 2014 at

      I cannot agree more with this. If the guy getting hit has some responsibility for protecting himself from potentially injurious hits, the guy doing the hitting has some responsibility to protect himself from getting injured if he misses the hit. If I’m the guy about to get crushed after I’ve already shot/passed/dumped the puck, and I can get out of the way of the hit, I’m going to do it, every time…and that applies even if the NHL starts penalizing guys for ducking hits. Over the course of a season, a few extra PK’s is worth it, if it makes the guys who have to “finish their checks” to stay in the NHL have to worry about whether or not the check-finishing is worth sitting on the IR for a month or two.

    21. Jeff
      May 6, 2014 at

      Excellent article, overall thoughtful comments. I would love to see the “finishing the check” nonsense removed. Scaling back the weaponized armour the players are wearing today would go a long way to restoring some respect to the game.

      • Bruce McCurdy
        May 6, 2014 at

        Agree 100% on the weaponized armour. Softer shoulder & elbow caps would reduce injuries.

        • Kris
          May 7, 2014 at

          Yeah you’re seeing the same thing in the NFL as well except they use their hard helmet as a weapon as well.

    22. tim
      May 6, 2014 at

      You have got to be kidding me.. you’re basing this entire article on 45 seconds of a Flyers game from 1975?.. what kind of research is that?

      go watch some more.. then form an opinion and write story based on more than 45 seconds of footage from a game that wasn’t the stanley cup finals. maybe try watching the broad street bullies documentary that HBO did a few years ago.

      also, maybe watch a few games from the ’90′s .. in my opinion those games were a lot worse than the NHL is now when it comes to unnecessary hitting.

      also, i’ve seen tons of players move and try to avoid hits. they either do it successfully.. or they move, which causes the hitter to move, who then, due to the physics of turning to realign for a hit juts their knee out (because that’s what happens when your target moves out of the way suddenly, your instinct is to course correct which causes your knee to move out towards the player) in which, in most cases, results in injuries to one or both players and at least a penalty, possibly a suspension.

      so, while moving out of the way of a hit while you’re against the boards isn’t a terrible idea.. doing it in open ice will put you at risk of injury.

      so again, maybe you should check out more than 45 seconds of a game from a team that was bad ass but weren’t known simply for their body checks, but were known more as dirty, tough hockey players who were determined to get in the heads of their opponents.. hell, look at the game between the flyers and the soviet union.. and then tell me it’s not the same as it is now. do your research.

      lastly.. you also have to take into account that the players are using equipment that is a whole hell of a lot better than they were using in ’75 (minus all of the breaking sticks).. the skates are better, the pads are better.. the players are also in much better shape and more athletic. i think this is a MAJOR factor to sports that you need to understand. the game is faster, the athletes are better.. if you’re going to compare a player from then to one now, you have to take this into consideration.

    23. Scott
      May 6, 2014 at

      With respect to Subban ducking Thornton’s hit, I’d say it’s bloody lucky PK did duck out on it: the view on replay clearly shows an elbow leading into the head area. So what if….Thornton suspended for 5-7 games, PK out for the series, sounds like the kind of trade Boston would love to make.

      As long as the league does nothing beyond lip service to get cheap shots out of the game, how can we not expect players to protect themselves?

    24. Bob Weenk
      May 6, 2014 at

      Holy Cow; an intelligent and articulate hockey discussion. Hard to believe. I am amazed that not one neandrethal contributed. Why. Aren’t your contributors running the NHL. If they were, I might become a hockey fan again. I’m almost seventy and can remember hockey all the way back to the fifties. I pretty much gave up on the game many years ago and the Don Cherry’s of the world guaranteed I would not return, except for Olympic hockey and its ilk. At its best hockey is a swift violent game, while at its worst it resembles nothing more than a group of five year olds on the playground. There have always been thugs, but I recall that they could also play the game. Maybe fewer teams and fewer marginal players would go a ways toward solving the problem.

      • Kris
        May 7, 2014 at

        I think the post lockout (ie 2nd lockout, 2005 or whatever it was) rules have helped but there’s plenty of room to improve for sure. At the very least you’re not seeing as much of the Scott Stevens style hits anymore.

    25. Lewis Grant
      May 6, 2014 at

      a way to separate a man from the puck vs. a punishment for having touched the puck

      That’s a brilliant way to describe it. I had never consciously thought of it that way, but it very nicely expresses a sort of gut feeling that I had.

      Furthermore, I wonder if it subtly changes the nature of the sport. To compare it to football, hitting becomes less like the physical battles of the defensive line to actually get to the quarterback, and more like the physical battles just to wear down the O-line. Or, to extend the analogy even further, it might even be akin to punching an offensive lineman in the junk when you happen to find him in a prone position, away from the refs/TV cameras. In other words, the punishment for having chosen a particular strategy of attack/defense that puts you in a prone position, even if it was an effective strategy for protecting the quarterback.

      I think intimidation and physical force are fine (maybe even good) when they flow naturally from the way that the sport is played. But when they are a sort of addition, it seems unnatural and artificial. It’s like fearing a defensive lineman not because he’s good, but because he’s dirty. I don’t think any sport benefits from that.

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    27. TR
      May 29, 2014 at

      I don’t see the problem of a player attempting to avoid being hit. Suban was a marked man in the Boston series with goons like Thorton and Lucic taking runs at him constantly. Why should there be a problem with him ducking a hit and having Thorton miss and going flying into the boards. I thought Thorton deserved it. Nobody seems to complain when Thorton takes a run at Suban and tries to decapitate him.

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