Punishment of concussion-inducing hits has limits

It’s still the pre-season, but the NHL already has its first controversial hit of the campaign in the books. L.A.’s Jordan Nolan sent Rostislav Klesla of the Coyotes off the ice on a stretcher and the only punishment went to Phoenix enforcer Paul Bissonnette, who later left the bench to engage Nolan.

Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s head of discipline, has publicly dissected the hit and believed it to be clean (video below). “Nolan leads with his shoulder and the hit is not late by NHL standards,” Shanahan explained. “Nolan does not deliver the blow with his elbow, nor does he launch up into the check.”

This last point is debatable: Ask any NHLer and they’ll tell you that proper form in any bodycheck is to “explode up” into your target – but maybe I’m getting too nitpicky here.

Back on topic, I’m sure there are a lot of Phoenix fans wondering where their justice is – Bissonnette is gone for 10 games and who knows how long Klesla will be sidelined after sustaining a concussion and whiplash?

But what can be done?

If Nolan doesn’t make that hit, Klesla stays in the play and perhaps helps the Coyotes score a goal soon thereafter. And despite a Stanley Cup ring and a very promising start to his young career, Nolan has to keep the pedal to the metal in the pre-season: The Kings’ forward corps got even deeper in the summer and competition in the bottom six will be fiendish.

But could he not have at least let up a little bit, still separating Klesla from the puck, but not from the Czech’s senses? I’ll let an expert on the subject weigh in: Raffi Torres, the San Jose Sharks winger whom I spoke to recently and knows a little bit about iffy hits. “People watching in the stands or sitting behind a keyboard don’t realize how fast and how strong this game is right now,” Torres said. “If you step into a weight room with us in the summer, you’d be surprised how strong and fast and in shape everybody is. I’ve noticed in the past few years that this game has gotten faster every year.”

So take 6-foot-3, 225-pound Jordan Nolan and apply the rules of physics to a train wreck involving his frame and the speed he can generate as a 24-year-old at or near the peak of his athletic capabilities upon Klesla, about to make a pass and not bracing himself for impact.

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There will be more hits like this as 2013-14 begins in earnest and there will probably be a couple fights that end in knockouts. It’s unfair to say hockey is getting more violent, but what would be accurate is to say the violence is evolving. Look back at some the fights in the Original Six era and guys were swinging their sticks at each other’s helmetless heads before they dropped the gloves and sometimes they’d start at it again from within the penalty box. The 1970s were known as much for the Broad Street Bullies and Big, Bad Bruins as they were for the skilled Montreal Canadiens, so don’t tell me about the clean days of years gone by.

When a player zeroes in on an opponent, he may be thinking that his mission is to seek and destroy, though I’ve never had anyone admit that to me on or off the record.

“I don’t go out there looking to put guys on a stretcher or get helped off the ice,” Torres said. “That’s not what I’m about, it’s never been what I’m about. But I am going to play on that edge.”

New Jersey Devils enforcer Krys Barch told me during the 2013 season that he knows his fights could one day lead to CTE, the brain degeneration disease found in several deceased athletes from contact sports such as hockey and football, but he feels he has been more than fairly compensated financially, plus he plays the game he loves.

The combination of skill and brawn is what makes hockey so exciting and yes, there is danger in that equation. The squeamish viewer has to make a Faustian bargain when they buy the ticket or turn on the TV, but the players have made their choice and it’s not going to change.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.

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