I promised myself this season I wasn't going to be the pussy(cat) of the NHL on TSN panel.
But here we are, less than one week into the 2009-10 regular season, and I find myself have to go back on my New Season's resolution already.
Did you see Darcy Hordichuk's hit last night on Jared Boll? I did and I don't like it.
Would I have been happier had the NHL decided to suspend the Vancouver Canuck tough guy forward for what I think was a blindside and gratuitous hit that caused a head injury to the Columbus Blue Jacket tough guy forward?
I suppose so.
But the issue isn't so much Hordichuk on Boll specifically as it the widespread acceptance and belief that hits happen, players get hurt, so be it, it's a rough game and if you dare to question any of that, you're branded a pussy(cat).
Like I said, I don't want to let Hordichuk off the hook. He needs to be responsible for his actions, although I'm not sure how his two-minute minor for roughing equates with responsibility. The truth is, Boll could have just as easily been on the giving end as the receiving end. It's how the game is being played today.
I don't believe hockey's age-old concept of "finishing your check" has ever been embraced as fully as it is now. Today's players – bigger, faster and stronger than at any time in the history of the game – are like machines, as well they should be.
The NHL game has never been more competitive. There has never been greater parity. The NHL regular season games are as fiercely contested as they ever have been. Every shift of every game counts. Jobs are on the line; pressure is at an all-time. If a fourth-line player such as Hordichuk, or Boll for that matter, doesn't "finish his check" then their coaches will find someone else who will.
But I would submit somewhere along the line, the hitting game in the NHL has changed, and not necessarily for the better. I'm not suggesting for a moment there was more "respect" in bygone eras because as my pal Mike Milbury likes to point out, he played in the 1970s against the Broad Street Bullies and the Philadelphia Flyers were not about "respecting" him. Point well taken.
But I'm not sure when it became acceptable to hit a player when he has his back turned and is totally vulnerable and defenceless.
The Hordichuk hit on Boll wasn't about Boll putting himself in a vulnerable position. Boll was doing his job. He was racing to get a puck on the boards in his own end. He corralled the puck, turned and fired it out of the zone, just as he's supposed to in order to not incur the wrath of coach Ken Hitchcock.
And what happened next was fine, too.
Boll was hit by Vancouver forward Rick Rypien That was fine. Rypien was the first Canuck on the scene, Boll was the last player to touch the puck and, therefore, fair game to be hit. Rypien just finished his check and he did so legally, with Boll fully aware that he was going to pay the price for clearing the puck. Which is all as it should be.
But Boll had no clue, nor should he have been expected to, that he would be hit a second time, from the blindside, by Hordichuk. Boll was already off balance and arguably going down when the force of Hordichuk's hit drove Boll's head into the dasher board. Boll clearly suffered a concussion, he was down and out for a relatively long period of time and even as he was helped to the dressing room, he appeared groggy and dazed.
I am not saying the Hordichuk hit was malicious or that was off-the-scale dirty. That's the problem, though. He felt like he was just doing his job, but I would maintain that if you hit someone from the blind side and he suffers a significant head injury as a result, there should be a price to be paid.
I don't need to go into my feelings on head injuries and how the NHL, as well as all levels of the game, needs to do a better job of preventing them. It is well documented. (By the way, every member of the NHL community, especially the players, should read current issue of GQ magazine and a frightening but insightful article by Jeanne Marie Laskas on the tragic lives and deaths of multiple-concussed, retired NFL players).
And while I understand hits happen in hockey and sometimes head injuries happen, too, I remain unconvinced that this one to Boll served any purpose whatsoever in the context of the game. Boll had been eliminated from the play, as he should be, and he got rapped a second time for no reason other than Hordichuk doing what he thinks is necessary to play “his game.”
No one wants to see hitting taken out of the game. A well-timed big hit is as good as it gets in hockey. But somewhere along the line, and I'm not sure exactly when it was, the hitting in the game got a more lot more reckless and cavalier and intense and devastating. This concept of “finishing your check” has been taken to the nth degree. Once upon a time, it was a violation, of the rules and the spirit of the game, to hit another player when he had his back turned.
Now? Not so much. Hordichuk hit a player from behind, with some potentially serious consequences for that player, if not now, perhaps down the road. Hordichuk did receive a two-minute penalty but that's not really anything that's going to make him think twice about doing the same thing again the next time the hit is there for the taking.
So, yeah, maybe I would have felt a little better if Hordichuk had been suspended by the NHL, but not much. Because the larger issue for me is how accepted a hit like Hordichuk's has become. I would suggest the NHL community – from the league's hockey operations to the managers to the coaches to the players to the Players' Association – should at least bat around this notion of what type of hitting is acceptable and what's not. Is it really the end of the world as we know it to perhaps consider that the hitters need to exercise judgment before they deliver their hit? Or has the game become so much about hitting and “finishing the check” that it's done with no regard whatsoever on the consequences?
The other big problem now is that it's difficult to even have a responsible dialogue about this subject. The minute you do, the reaction from the traditionalists and hard-liners is that ''you're going to take hitting out of the game.'' It's a knee-jerk reaction to avoid having to talk about the issue and if that fails, the next step is to challenge the machismo of the person raising the issue.
Hitting is not in danger of leaving hockey any time soon, even if certain aspects of hitting are challenged. I think it's a gross overreaction and fear-mongering at its worst to suggest any discussion on this subject is going to neuter the physicality of the sport. It's not an all or nothing proposition.
But if, at the end of a legitimate and/or earnest exercise to truly discuss this issue, the consensus is that Hordichuk's hit on Boll was just fine and dandy and exactly what the NHL game today is all about, then this pussy(cat) will zip the lip. Or at least try.
But I couldn't help myself this one time. I was never very good with resolutions.