TORONTO – Wendel Clark doesn’t think he had as much to worry about during his NHL career as players do today.
The former Toronto Maple Leafs captain readily admits that he only kept his head up for part of the time he was on the ice. And he certainly didn’t play with the fear of finding himself involved in a check as bad as some that have occurred this season – even when he faced the best team of his generation.
“If you look at Edmonton in their heydey, they had Mark Messier that was going to hit you with your head down and hit you hard,” Clark said this week in an interview. “That was the only guy with a direct shoulder on the Edmonton Oilers in the ’80s. Other guys like (Marty) McSorley and (Kevin) McClellland would come across and play you hard and tough and fight you.
“But when you’re talking about guys coming straight across and hitting you with a shoulder going 30 miles an hour, there wasn’t a lot of guys on every team that did that.”
It’s one of the biggest changes Clark notices when he watches an NHL game now. There are virtually no players that are incapable of throwing a decent hit.
“If you look at today’s superstars, our two best players Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, they hit people,” said Clark. “In the old days, Gretzky and Lemieux never hit anybody.”
Hitting has been a hot topic in the hockey world for the past couple weeks, fuelled by a proposed rule change from NHL general managers on head shots and a string of disturbing incidents.
The highlight reels have been filled with plays that put a black eye on the sport: Matt Cooke knocking out Marc Savard with a shoulder to the head; Alex Ovechkin shoving Brian Campbell into the end boards; and James Wisniewski plastering an unsuspecting Brent Seabrook.
Even though those hits were all different from one other, they shared one thing in common – none of them would likely have occurred 10 or 20 years ago.
“Very rarely you saw guys when I played get knocked out with bodychecks to the head,” said former NHL defenceman Bob McGill, who appeared in 705 games between 1981 and 1994. “It’s just funny how the guys today certainly don’t have any problems trying to take each other’s heads off. It’s a little disappointing because now you’re starting to see star players being knocked out for the course of the season. …
“How long’s it going to take before it stops?”
Of course, there were ugly incidents of a different variety in the ’80s and ’90s – the worst usually involved swinging sticks or hard cross-checks. Those have essentially been eliminated.
League disciplinarian Colin Campbell believes the rule changes to crack down on hooking and holding after the 2004-05 lockout have indirectly led to some of the current problems. As a result, the game was sped up at a time when players are bigger than ever before.
Clark thinks it also stems from an improvement in equipment that makes players far more reckless from a younger age. He recalls having shoulder pads that were so soft it made him think twice before trying to truly hammer an opponent.
“You think you’re invincible because you grow up with all this equipment,” said Clark. “In the old days, you didn’t grow up with facemasks and shoulder pads and elbow pads like you see today. The better equipment you wear, the more fearless you play.
“Football and hockey have the same (issue) – the better equipment you’re wearing the faster you can go into the corner because you know you’re not going to hurt yourself.”
Even still, he doesn’t fault guys for making the most of what they have available.
Clark was known for playing a tough brand of hockey and thinks most coaches are now demanding that from guys right through the lineup.
“If you don’t play that way, you get sent to the minors because that’s the way the game is,” he said. “That’s why I don’t blame players and question their respect for each other – you’re either making $75,000 (in the AHL) or $600,000 (in the NHL).
“You’re playing for you job, you’re not playing (to show) how nice you are.”
People on all sides of the conversation about hitting in hockey can be in agreeance that it’s been a tough stretch for the sport.
It doesn’t appear as though the new head shot penalty will come into effect before next season, but there is still a strong desire to see the issue addressed.
“Everybody and his dog – from the players to the fans to the general managers to the owners – want to see something done,” said McGill.
Judging by the eight-game suspension Wisniewski received on Thursday, the league is trying to address the problem through supplemental discipline. Clark is optimistic that strategy will work.
“The only way you ever fix it is tough suspensions – not one or two games,” he said. “That’s the only way because you’re penalizing the team and the player hard.”