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|When clean hits look dirty|
|Written by Justin Bourne|
|Wednesday, 20 April 2011 12:55|
So every NHL player who gets suspended for a 'dirty' hit is dirty, right? Maybe in the black-and-white court of opinion – but in the heat of the moment, many checks are more defensible than they seem.
In the world of full-contact hockey, you don't always know what you're about to run into when you go to deliver a check. Sometimes, the awful result of an awkward check leaves us thinking that the person who doled out the hit is a villain.
On the other hand, you have numerous lanky kids between 18-22 who still need years of filling out before they'll be able to effectively deal with the physicality of playing against full-grown men (the strength range is even bigger in the AHL/ECHL, where you have far more small players, but still plenty of failed NHL grinders and heavies. Also no steroid testing, but that's another story).
This size range poses a problem because when you're rushing after an opponent for a loose puck, you don't always know what you're dealing with under those pads. It's not as obvious as it seems – there are plenty of mid-sized hockey dudes that are shockingly strong. The last thing you want to do for your team (and yourself personally) is be the guy who gets punked with an early bodycheck and knocked off the puck or, worse, on your butt.
So every time you lock in for body contact, you have to prepare like you're trying to knock an angry Zdeno Chara off the puck. Some of the "little" guys can do ab planks on Swiss balls for double-digit minutes, and running into them without enough push-back will inevitably end in embarrassment.
So when you prep for contact like that and you hammer someone who isn't physically "there" yet, sometimes you end up hitting a guy in a way that ends up looking a lot worse that you intended.
This is often accentuated by the fact that you're never fully able to gauge your opponent's level of preparation to receive a hit. This is a big part of what ends up making some would-be normal hits look ugly. The idea of chasing down a defenseman and passing on finishing your check because you think he doesn't see you is swell and everything, but when it turns out he did and quickly grabs the puck and wheels it up ice, you're in for a solid tongue-lashing when you get to the bench, where you may be sitting for a while.
Your duty as F1 on the forecheck is to take the body, and let F2 come in and take the puck. So when you decide to provide early contact and it unfortunately turns out that the guy wasn't prepared for the contact, ugly results can ensue.
What should be normal hits can look ugly for other reasons, too.
Think of the hit Shane Doan put on Johan Franzen last Saturday:
Franzen is a big strong horse of a man, so Shane got into the body and hoped to play the best defense possible. Franzen half toe-picked was already on his way to the ice, so when Doan made contact, it ended up looking pretty ugly. I'm sure some Detroit fans thought it was cheap, but most of the time Franzen would've barely budged and maintained possession.
Sometimes the circumstances just add up to an ugly hit, and foot positioning, ice ruts and balance all play a part in that.
The age of Twitter has made it so that every time a questionable hit happens, the hockey community seems to attempt to reach a group consensus, and we're very satisfied when we do. More often we debate the hit and agree to disagree (as was the case with the Raffi Torres/Brent Seabrook hit), though not always as politely as we should.
But I feel like it must be hard for people to weigh in on those debates if they haven't gone to finish a check clean and had an opponent somehow spiral into the boards into a crumpled heap (or as was more common for me personally, gone to rub someone out who was pretending not to see them, only to have a shoulder driven into their chest and find themselves staring up looking straight up at the rafters).
Every time a player says 'I thought he saw me coming,' it's not always a lie. Not everyone is a villain.
Every time a player says "I thought he saw me coming" or something else we laugh off, it's not always a lie. Not everyone is a villain – it just happens to be a contact sport that requires split-second decisions. People make mistakes. When it clearly isn't a mistake, then sure, feel free to go for the jugular.
Repeat offenders get worse suspensions because the executives at the NHL offices understand that the odd "oopsie" hit happens. But when they start to pile up, and a certain player starts to push his OPG (oopsie-per-game) ratio too high, we know it's time for an increase in punishment.
So keep that in mind when judging whether a hit was the worst thing ever or 100 percent excusable.
Lord knows there's no such thing as a gray area, right?
Photo by Getty Images