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Last Word: This evolution – the decline in physicality – is no illusion

Hitting is, and always has been, an important part of hockey. That won’t change. But we’re seeing the gradual transformation of the senseless hit into the sensible hit.

These are strange times indeed. John Tortorella, a 5-foot-8, 175-pound water bug who once scored 96 points for something called the Virginia Lancers in something called the Atlantic Coast League, has his shorts in a knot over the fact there’s not enough hate and that every NHL game has turned into a “hug fest.” Meanwhile, Eric Lindros, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound behemoth who bulldozed his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame, is suggesting we all might want to dial it down a little when it comes to body contact.

It has some old-time hockey lovers wondering where all the hitting has gone. It also has many of them wondering whether the NHL is turning into the Ice Capades because, you know, it always has to be one extreme or another with these guys. The organic removal of fighting, combined with more of an emphasis on speed and skill rather than physicality, has some people in the hockey world concerned that the game is going soft. Tell that to a scoring winger who gets cross-checked in the back a dozen times a game or a defenseman who regularly pays the price of kissing the glass in order to retrieve a dump-in, but whatever.

As we examine this, we have to start with the premise that hits might be the least reliable statistic in hockey. The application can vary wildly from arena to arena. Florida’s Robert Svehla led the NHL hits in 2000-01 and ’01-02 – which included a mind-boggling 386 hits in the latter year – largely because he would regularly be credited with double-digit hits at home games. None of the hit statistics prior to 2005-06 can be taken seriously, but the stats that the league provides are all we have.

And by that metric, yes, hits are down in the NHL. In fact, there hasn’t been this little body contact in the NHL in 10 years. Through the first quarter of the season, there were 14,122 hits in 331 games, which averages out to 42.7 hits per game. That’s down from 43.2 last season, which is barely a blip (just over one percent), but down noticeably from 2014-15, when there were 50 hits per game. That’s a dip of almost 15 percent. So, generally speaking, hitting is down significantly from four years ago.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Well, if you get your kicks seeing your team crush and punish its opponents, not so great. But if you actually like seeing your team win games, that’s another story. You see, with the advent of analytics in the game, more and more NHL teams are slowly coming to the conclusion that being more physical doesn’t correlate to winning games.

Teams that are out-hit in games are just as likely to win as those who register more bodychecks. They’re beginning to grasp the reality that if their team is spending the entire game chasing their opponent and trying to knock them off the puck, that means they don’t have the puck on their sticks. And, news flash, it’s difficult to score when you don’t have the puck. It’s also generally accepted that when a team is busy carrying the puck, it doesn’t feel the need to dish out bodychecks. The next step in hockey’s evolution should be the same realization when it comes to blocked shots, which is the second-most useless statistic in the game.

The Nashville Predators were in first place overall in the NHL at the quarter point of the season and dead last in hits. Care to guess who led the league in hits in the playoffs last spring? That would be the Los Angeles Kings, who recorded a mind-boggling 58.5 hits per game, which was 20 more per game than the next highest team. And what exactly did it get them? Well, they did score three goals in their four-game sweep setback at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights, plus the dead-fish-slap-to-the-face realization that the rest of the NHL has left them in the rear-view mirror.

Much of this, of course, has to do with the league’s crackdown on blindside hits on defenseless players, which comes in an era of enlightenment concerning the profound dangers associated with brain injuries and the education players are receiving about it.

The best young players in the NHL began playing and watching the game once it opened up after the 2004-05 lockout, and the only game they know is based on speed and skill. That’s evolution. According to unofficial stats, the league registered 48.8 hits per game in 1999-2000, which happened to coincide with the flaccid Dead Puck Era™ when the product the NHL was putting on display bordered on unwatchable. (“You want to be entertained?” one NHL executive opined during that era. “Go to the movies.”) Hockey is faster, more competitive, more exciting and played by more talented athletes than the game has ever produced. Why complain about that?

Not sure about anyone else, but I would gladly exchange six fewer hits per game for the product we’re seeing on the ice today as opposed to the drudgery we were force-fed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And those who lament the fact the NHL has become the Ice Capades are, as usual, not the ones who have to absorb the bone-crushing hits themselves. Hitting is, and should always be, an integral part of the game. Just because teams are beginning to realize that the purpose of a hit is to separate an opponent from the puck, and not his senses, is not a bad thing. Not at all.

This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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