There will undoubtedly be a portion of hockey fandom – probably a sizeable one if social media is any indication – that believes Tom Wilson got exactly what he deserved Tuesday night when Ryan Reaves laid him out with a blindside hit that resulted in him having to be helped from the ice. Karma’s a bugger, eh Tommy?
And really, if you believe that nothing in hockey can alter a person’s behavior more than retributive justice, perhaps this could stop Wilson from being a predatory headhunter. The NHL clearly has failed in delivering the message to Wilson, so maybe it’s better that another player send it. In any event, it also reinforces the notion that NHL teams need players like Ryan Reaves to protect their guys from players such as Ryan Reaves.
Reaves should be called on the carpet for his hit on Wilson, but not due to Rule 48, which governs headshots. That’s because it was not a headshot. It was late, it was dirty, it was premeditated and it was reckless, but it was not a headshot because there was no direct contact with Wilson’s head. Any head injury Wilson would have would come from the impact and perhaps, that his head hit the ice after his helmet flew off.
But looking at the bigger picture here, there have been many shorts in a knot and much gnashing of teeth over the fact that hitting is down in the NHL these days. Indeed, the most unreliable and misleading statistic in hockey tells us that body contact is down about six hits per game from four years ago. Part of the reason for that is that teams have finally realized that hitting has no traceable correlation to winning hockey games. Teams that get outhit are just as likely to win a game as a team that takes the body. And, of course, if you have the puck on your stick the majority of the time, you’re not going to be administering bodychecks.
But I have another theory about why hits are down in the NHL. There are some who would have you believe that it’s because hockey players have gone soft, becoming union brothers more interested in singing Kumbaya in unison than knocking each other off the puck. But there’s a chance it could actually be the opposite and nothing illustrates that better than the game between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night. That game shows that, in fact, the NHL and its players have proved time and again that it can’t have nice things. Such as hitting.
I would argue that hitting is down in the NHL because any form of physical play or any big hit is perceived as a slight and has to be responded to in kind. Whatever happened to the day that a player took a big, clean hit and picked himself off the ice without having a teammate come to his rescue?
And the Vegas-Washington game was a perfect example. A game like that should have been something every hockey fan would enjoy, a rematch game between two teams that battled for the Stanley Cup six months ago, a budding rivalry complete with intensity, big hits and great plays. What we got instead was a parade of guys, led by Reaves, trying to "send a message." (Oh, Lord, how I detest that term.) Reaves was taking runs at Wilson all game, which prompted Alex Ovechkin to drill Tomas Nosek in the neutral zone with a hit where he left his feet. (And really, if a guy leaves his feet in the follow-through of a hit, is it really any difference than if his feet have left the ice in mid-hit?)
Then, instead of the game being what it should have been, it devolved into an ‘F-you’ contest where the biggest news coming out of it was the Reaves hit on Wilson. And guess what? The two physical players who should have been a big part of proceedings didn’t even finish the game because Wilson was hurt and Reaves was kicked out.
And that, more than anything is why hitting is down in the NHL these days. If a player knows he has to answer for a clean hit, either by having to fight or by getting run at himself, as the consequence for being physical, he’s probably a lot less apt to make that hit in the first place. And much of this goes back to the notion that, somewhere along the line, the purpose of a hit morphed from separating an opponent from the puck to separating an opponent from his senses. And as long as that kind of thinking prevails, the big hit with unfortunate consequences will go on, but the hits we all love to see, the ones that make this game so great, will continue to decline.