Hockey Night in America! Part 2: Hitting in hockey

It’s Adrian the Canadian’s turn on part 2 of Hockey Night in America! Here’s what he proposes for the NHL, as they adjust to the new evidence about the dangers of head injuries:

Last night, Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury almost had a dust up over Eric Nystrom’s hit of Kris Letang (Deadspin has the link). The battle lines are the ones I’ve discussed here before – Roenick believes that Letang put himself in a bad position, Milbury, who I’ve criticized before for his Paleo positions, thinks that the hit was unnecessary. On ice, the referees thought that Nystrom deserved a “roughing minor” for the hit. For the uninitiated, a roughing penalty is given when one player hits another in the head with his hand or fist. Roughing is usually a minor penalty.

“Roughing” seems like an odd call here, Nystrom doesn’t seem to obviously punch Letang. After Letang punches the puck up along the boards, Nystrom continues attempts to hit Letang, misses him, and catches him on the chest/chin with some part of his arm – there does not seem to be a “punching motion.” Yet, it seems clear that Nystrom has done something wrong: he hit a man without the puck! Elbowing seems to be a better call but still doesn’t capture the spirit of the act. Nystrom didn’t “extend his elbow,” as the rule requires, he missed a check. Similarly, “boarding” does not apply because 1) Letang was not hit into the boards and 2) he had arguably put himself in a “vulnerable position.” “Charging” does not work because there was no charge.

Illegal hit to the head must be a better option, right? Nope. First, it is clear that Nystrom did not target the head. Instead, he mistimed a check to the body. Second, he arguably hit the chest first. And third, Letang put himself in a vulnerable position by reaching out and attempting to play the puck. Nystrom decided to eschew the puck in order to knock Letang into next week. Counter-intuitively, the “illegal hit to the head” rule allows for the player not attempting to play the puck to use his victim’s attempt to play the puck as an excuse for his hit to the head!

So what about interference? Again, this is not a winner. Interference seems like the logical call here except for this portion:

Possession of the Puck: The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession.

The NHL tends to take a liberal reading of the last requirement, allowing hits to take place a fairly long time after the “player in possession” has knocked the puck on. “Roughing” is the penalty here because it really is the best of some poor options. There appears to be a blind-spot in the NHL rule book: there isn’t really a penalty for a “late hit”. And, under the current set of rules, there are few incentives for defensive players to play skillfully and under control.

When Roenick insists that the Mike Millburys of this world want to remove hitting from the game he misses the point. As things stand, the defensive player has tremendous advantages. Because of the rule about “putting yourself in a vulnerable position” and the NHL’s liberal reading of the word immediately, defensive players can play recklessly, hitting players both after they’ve released the puck while also taking advantage of the offensive player’s body position while he still has possession. So what can be done to remedy this?

Make immediately mean immediately: Defensive players are given too much leeway under the current “interference” rule to charge in and hit an offensive player after he has released the puck. As I’ve argued before, this makes the game less skillful and more dangerous. This is not to say that there aren’t times where the hit is unavoidable. There are and defensive players should not be penalized for these situations. This was not one of them.

Remove “targeted” language from the head shot rule: Nystrom approach Letang out of control and, when he misses the hit, makes contact with Letang’s head. This should be a penalty for a hit to the head – Nystrom contacted Letang’s head not because Letang was in a “vulnerable position” (although he may have been), but because Nystrom decided to avoid the puck, missed the hit, and clipped Letang’s head/chest. Since Nystrom did not “target” Letang’s head, the rule does not apply. Instead, the NHL should penalize “intentional or reckless contact to the head of an opposing player.” This should be a major penalty. On that count, Nystrom, who was clearly not in control of himself, would have received a sterner penalty.

Remove “vulnerable position” language: Instead, consider only whether the hit was unavoidable. Letang placed himself in a “vulnerable” position because he decided to play the puck. Nystrom decided to play Letang. Simply, the NHL should not punish players for trying to play the puck. This will open up the game and improve player safety.

Institute the “bear hug” rule: Under the “bear hug” rule, instead of obliterating Letang, Nystrom would have been allowed to “wrap” him in order to stymie his progress. While I’m not the biggest fan of this rule – I think it’s too deferential to lumbering defensive players and detrimental to skillful hockey – it does offer offensive players more protection in situations where the hit is truly unavoidable.

Milbury is right. There is no place for this sort of play in hockey and Nystrom should have been suspended. Roenick is wrong. Modifying the rules to prevent plays like this will not take hitting out of hockey, they will instead make the game safer and more skillful.  When even Mike Milbury, patron saint of the anti-pussification crowd, can see that something is amiss, it’s time for the NHL to closely examine its rule book.

2 responses to “Hockey Night in America! Part 2: Hitting in hockey

  1. I totally agree with you Adrian. The way the rules are written / interpreted / applied right now, way too much responsibility is placed on an offensive player. If a greater burden for avoiding dangerous hits fell on defensive players it would curb the recklessness with which they are currently allowed to play. Forcing the checker to make mental assessments before delivering a body check would minimize the chances of a high-impact, dangerous hit occurring. Either the player would decide the hit would be too dangerous and avoid it altogether, or, by being forced to make a mental calculation before contact, the player’s progress should be slowed enough that the resulting impact is far less risky.

    Roenick’s argument that something like this would take hitting out of the game is, frankly, “BS”. Watch this clip from a 1967 PLAYOFF game between the Habs and Leafs. ( How many times do you see a player finishing their check simply for the sake of finishing their check – and remember, this is a playoff game? Nowadays in a playoff game, nary an inch is surrendered without making the opponent “pay the price”. In the past, I would argue the physicality of the game was much more concerned with obtaining possession of the puck than with simply intimidation or imposing punishment. In this clip, there are two clear examples of the different attitude that prevailed at the time. (0:47 and 9:10) In both cases, offensive players put themselves in a vulnerable position, but the checker does not attempt to make the puck carrier “pay the price” and instead makes a play on the puck. More of that attitude today would be good for the game and the safety of the players.

  2. Excellent comment. You’re exactly right about the difference in attitude. The two examples you cite are remarkable – the kind of situations where Roenick and Milbury would normally blame the offensive player for putting himself in a bad situation. Also, the video makes apparent the difference in player size between then in now. Another argument for wider ice. Also, you wonder how much of the attitude difference is driven by the modern game’s increased use of hard plastic padding. While I’m no advocate of going back to minimal padding, cutting back on the use of hard plastic may improve player safety as well.

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