Over the years, one of the biggest problems I’ve had with establishment NHL people is their willingness to blame the victims of on-ice incidents.
But my attitude in that regard is changing. At least, when it comes to hits from behind.
Don’t get me wrong. I still and will always believe the aggressor in any play-gone-wrong ought to be reprimanded for reckless behavior. But with every NHLer I see turning his back to an opponent and facing the boards from close range, the more I accept that blame for hits from behind has to be shared - and not just between the two players involved.
Coaches have to accept responsibility for demanding their players protect the puck at all costs. GMs have to suck it up and understand there will be penalties and punishments at an increasing rate and lobbying to reduce or retract those penalties does more harm than good. And hockey leagues have to re-educate players, coaches and GMs as to the need for change.
To its credit, the NHL is sounding more and more rational on the issue.
“We’re talking about saving players’ careers,” NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell said after the latest GM meetings in Toronto. “I know it’s a physical game and it’s a lot to ask a player. But if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 100 times, at least in supplemental discipline hearings – the player says to me, ‘my coach expects me to finish my check and if I don’t finish my check, I’m in trouble.’ So he finished his check and sometimes the player he’s hitting puts himself into a crazy situation by turning at the last moment.”
Brian Burke - Campbell’s predecessor as disciplinarian and now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs - said hits from behind will become more of a priority, especially now that GMs believe the newly-implemented rule on blindside hits is having a positive effect on cutting down head injuries.
“The hits from behind is something we’re going to have to focus on, because players are creating those situations themselves and at what point does a player have accountability and responsibility for putting himself in a situation where he’s inviting the hit?” Burke said at the GM meetings. “It’s not just that he’s exposing himself to the hit, he’s turning his back to a defenseman who has committed, he’s protecting the puck and now he’s demanding to be hit. He’s forcing that defenseman to hit him and then he’s going down and looking at the referee.”
Former Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock concurs with Burke’s sentiments - and notes that experienced NHLers are doing a better-than-reported job when it comes to adjusting their on-ice behavior to comply with the blindside hit crackdown.
“Players are still putting themselves in vulnerable positions,” Hitchcock said. “What I see are players admiring passes. And that’s because you’re a young guy and you think you’ve got more time than you do. I’ve seen that about a dozen times already this year.
“So younger players are not ready for what’s happening out there and I’ve seen (veteran) players let up a lot on big hits. Veterans are the guardians of the game. And I think there’s a respect factor that the new rules have brought about. I don’t think the change is that they’ve kept their sticks or elbows down, it’s that they’re pulling up on big hits.
“I hope that continues to happen, because we have a younger league now and when you’ve got players just learning to keep up, it’s not good to have them knocked out of the game.”
Like Hitchcock, Burke also sees NHLers recognizing the potential for blindside hits and pulling up; as an example, he pointed to Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn going easy on Washington’s David Steckel in a recent game. But Burke believes players have a ways to go in maximizing their own safety during games.
“I am appalled at the position some of the players put themselves in with the puck,” he said. “They know the defense is right behind them, they turn into them and put their face to the glass and then they’re surprised when they get pancaked? I don’t get it.”
In Burke’s mind, there always will be a pressing disciplinary issue for the NHL to deal with.
“When I did discipline for the league, our big thing was stick work,” Burke said. “I was looking at baseball grip swings and cross-checks to the face - and we took that out of the game. Now we have to look at the blindside hits - which I think we’re regulating well - and hits from behind.
“The players are aware of it, but this whole thing is an evolution and we never solve all the problems. It’s like I say to our players - a farmer never goes to bed and everything’s set. He’s always got a sick animal or a fence to mend and it’s like that with hockey - we’ve always got something we’ve got to address. And the players evolve tactics that push the envelope on rules, so we’ll have to keep watching them.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Wednesdays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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