I feel like my bonafides as an anti-gratuitous violence guy are pretty well established. I’d be fine if the NHL ditched fighting. I’ve advocated in favour of banning headshots from hockey since virtually the day I started writing this website. So it’s a bit unusual for me to look around and see that I’m nodding in agreement when reading what guys like Jeff Marek and Jason Gregor have to say about an issue of violence in hockey.
As you may have heard, Raffi Torres ran into Marian Hossa last night. Hard. If you knew nothing about Raffi Torres except what you’ve read today, you’d probably think he was history’s greatest monster. Let’s take Mark Spector as an example. Here’s what he had to say about Torres today, in a piece entitled “HOCKEY’S BIGGEST PUNK“:
From Milan Michalek, to Brent Seabrook, to Marian Hossa, to Jordan Eberle, to Andrew Ference, to Jan Hejda, to Nate Prosser, Torres has never met an opponent he had an ounce of respect for.
Today he is the game’s preeminent head hunter. Today, Raffi Torres is clearly, the biggest punk in the game of hockey.
On Tuesday night Torres claimed the belt, as well as his latest victim, with a typically predatory hit on Hossa. It was like so many others by Torres, who floats from team to team to team, each one pleased that they’ve picked up “a game-changer,” then liking themselves even more when they part ways, deciding that their organization is better than that.
That is unusually rough.
As for Torres, another real deep thinker, he spoke on his own behalf after the game Tuesday, but it was quick and he said little. It’s a slight improvement from when he was injuring people for Vancouver, where he preferred to hide from the media altogether after one of his hits.
What did Spector have to say last year, after the hits he’s now treating as evidence of Torres’ predatory nature?
The hit Torres laid on Eberle Wednesday in Edmonton has, for as long as hockey players have gathered to play full-contact hockey, been considered a clean, hard check.
The play that Eberle made – extending to reach for a puck, leaving himself vulnerable for Torres to abandon the puck and choose the hit instead – has for as long as I have covered hockey represented a textbook example of putting yourself in a vulnerable position.
Torres’ elbow was in tight and he never left his feet. It is – or should we say, was – a textbook clean hit.
In my mind, both Torres hits were dead clean – two years ago. His elbow was tight, his skates on the ice, and (sorry Duncan), the puck was there both times.
Say what you want – as long as the National Hockey League is fine with that check, then Torres is doing his job to a tee,
Huh. While I’m not sure how he can say that the hit on Eberle represented a changing point while at the same time saying that both hits were clean two years ago but that’s neither here nor there. His comments last year don’t seem particularly condemnatory (apparently a word, if the lack of red lines under it are to be believed) either. It seems little unfair to label a guy HOCKEY’S BIGGEST PUNK for his vicious, predatory hits if, at the time he made them, you weren’t condemning them but were, in fact calling them “clean, hard checks” and acknowledging that he was “doing his job to a tee.”
I initially had a whole thing written about Torres, offering some defence of him. I decided to delete it. I don’t intend to pick on Spector here – he’s not alone in having swung so much against hits like the one Torres threw on Hossa. The fact of the matter is, what’s acceptable in hockey is changing and it’s made a bit more complicated by the fact that the role of hitting has changed over the years. Whereas it used to be about separating players from the puck, it’s become de rigeur to put hit a guy even once he’s released the puck. The longer a guy has to be worry about getting drilled after losing the puck, the more likely his attention will waver and the more likely he’ll get caught by someone who made a bad decision.
As far as I can tell, nobody can say that the hit on Hossa was anything more than a hockey play that he botched. Like screwing up his timing on a shot, only with a guy leaving the ice on a stretcher. You can say he jumped – he did come off the ice – but if Hossa’s a step closer, Torres drives up through his chest with his legs, which is sort of the textbook way to hit these days. It’s funny – I’m not sure the whole “Are his feet on the ice?” standard even makes any sense. I’m not a physicist but it seems unlikely to me that there’s much difference between driving through a guy with your legs and jumping – driving through a guy with your legs is just a jump that ran into something. One’s legal, the other isn’t.
Whatever you might say about Torres, he doesn’t have the track record of a guy like Matt Cooke. He doesn’t have a rap sheet full of nasty elbows, cross checks to the face, knee on knee hits or dangerous hits from behind. Spector says he’s predatory and, in a sense, I suppose he is. He’s close enough to the edge though that on basically all of the plays that people condemn (Ference was an exception), you can say it’s a hockey play gone wrong. Some of them, like the Eberle hit, are still difficult to understand (at the very least, the elbowing major was incomprehensible). Whether it’s Torres or someone else, as long as the line is drawn where it currently is, a guy who makes what can reasonably be seen as a mistake in judgment is going to result in guys getting absolutely destroyed.
In other words, Torres isn’t really the problem. The problem, to the extent that there is one, is a system of rules that renders guys fair game for a long time after they get rid of the puck. The problem is a mishmash rule about when you can hit a guy in the head. As long as hits like the Torres hit can be within a step of being legal, guys are going to miss their assessment of the line and cross it. When you draw these lines, you have to allow for some user error – it’s a fast game. Drawing the lines where the NHL has drawn them, you’re just begging for incidents like Torres on Hossa. The easy thing to do afterwards is to pretend that Torres is a really dirty player and that he always has been.
That doesn’t make it the truth and, if it’s not the truth, suspending Torres for ten games doesn’t really do anything to address the problem. Listing his history of hits that are over the line misleads, because, as Spector used to know, those hits were clean hockey hits for a long time. If you’re worked up about the Hossa hit and don’t acknowledge that the line being drawn where it is practically begs for guys to miss the line like Torres did, well, I don’t think you’re serious about solving the problem. You want the morality of being outraged while still getting the rush of watching all the awesome hits that fall on just the right side of the line (or that involve a star, or where the hittee doesn’t get hurt and we pretend it wasn’t as bad as the Torres hit).
The world does not, I would suggest, work that way. As long as you have a line, you’re going to have people who, in good faith, miss it. Condemning them for doing that might result in a pleasing sense of moral goodness, but it’s not a serious way to eliminate these sorts of incident in the future.