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 email@example.com