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McKenzie: Trying to make sense of hitting and fighting

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Bob McKenzie
2/2/2010 11:00:40 AM
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I am often told that we must be very careful we don't “take hitting out of the game.”

I am not sure that's possible. It's hockey, after all. Hitting is such an intrinsic part of it that I can't imagine there's a rule change or interpretation that would "take hitting out of the game."

But if the goal is to make sure hitting stays in the game, can someone explain to me, please, the curious case of Boston defenceman Mark Stuart.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings, Stuart delivered a well-timed, open-ice hit on Los Angeles King star Anze Kopitar. It was a clean but crushing blow.

Immediately after the hit, the Kings' very fine forward Wayne Simmonds immediately challenged Stuart to a fight and Stuart obliged by dropping the gloves. As it turned out, Stuart broke his pinky finger in the fight. He will be out a number of weeks now and the Bruins will be without a defenceman who was playing quite well.

And for what? Getting into a fight that was started because of a clean, open-ice hit?

Am I the only one who finds this sensibility odd? We want more hitting in the game. Or at least we don't want to take hitting out of the game. So here's a novel concept. When there is a really good, clean bodycheck, let's make the person who throws the check have a fight. That sounds like a heckuva way to keep hitting in the game. (Actually, it sounds more like a way to keep fighting in the game.)

I must be getting old. I've never fully embraced or understood the concept of not being able to hit a star player on the other team. I mean, isn't that the point? Make the stars earn their ice. Isn't that what makes hockey great - that even the star players have to take some physical abuse to do their job. I am not sure when the game fully changed on this. It was probably in the 1980s when Wayne Gretzky earned special status with the Edmonton Oilers.

It first started to creep in during the 1970s, with Bobby Clarke and the Philadelphia Flyers, but for the most part, star players still had to answer the bell then on a regular basis.

I have always been a big fan of lacrosse and one of things I really appreciated about the Canadian box game was how much abuse the star players had to take in order to score a goal. If you ever watched Gary Gait or his twin brother Paul Gait play for the Brooklin Redmen or Six Nations Chiefs, or John Tavares (not that John Tavares, his uncle) with the Brampton Excelsiors or Six Nations, it was astonishing to see them get hit and beat on as they scored magnificent goal after magnificent goal. And it was accepted that in order to be a star and score goals, they had to run that gauntlet of abuse. It took extraordinary athleticism and courage and there wasn't a fight every time they got hit. It was, get this, part of the game.

We often talk about the concept of "honour" in the game. Well, physically paying the price to score a goal, that's real honour. Having someone else come in and fight your battles for you? Not so much.

I suppose I'm old fashioned but for me the appropriate response to the Stuart hit would have come from a menu that includes the following: a) Kopitar gets up and exacts revenge by scoring a goal against Boston; b) If Kopitar was really incensed by the hit, he drops the gloves himself with Stuart (don't laugh, the point is the game had more honor when players fought their own battles); c) the Kings take Stuart's number and the first time he's in a position to get hit, he gets creamed; d) the Kings begin laying more hits and physical abuse on Boston's best offensive players Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron, and believe me Wayne Simmonds would be excellent at this; e) all of the above.

Personally, I think that would make for a better game than watching Simmonds fight Stuart and Stuart break his finger and miss weeks of action. But that's just me.

Like Boston coach Claude Julien, I know why the Stuart-Simmonds fight took place - the scrap to avenge a clean hit on a star player, or any player for that matter now, is viewed as the ultimate badge of team play at its best - but that doesn't mean I think it makes any sense, and it sounds like Julien agrees.

"That's as clean a check as you'll see, no doubt. They should have been jumping on the defenseman that made the pass instead of jumping on (Stuart)," Julien said. "But unfortunately, this game seems to be heading in that direction. When a good, clean hit is given, everybody - we're not excluding ourselves - we go to defend our teammates, and that was one of their best players that took the hit.

"If you look at what's going on around the league, it was a normal reaction. Unfortunately, right now we have a guy out of our lineup because he stood there and defended himself."

The truth is if we actually fear "taking hitting out of the game" we wouldn't allow a player to start a fight over a perfectly clean hit in a game that is suppose to encourage body contact. Unless, of course, the desire for fighting in hockey trumps bodychecking.

Mark Stuart (Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
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