Spate of dirty hits, hefty suspensions highlights NHL’s inherent danger
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter October 23, 2013 9:54PM
Updated: October 24, 2013 10:31AM
TAMPA, Fla. — Patrick Kane hasn’t seen the replay of the dangerous hit put on him by St. Louis’ Barret Jackman last Thursday at the United Center. Doesn’t need to, really. He remembers getting blindsided into the boards. He remembers his head getting crunched into the wall. He remembers his helmet nearly popping off. He remembers the bump on his forehead and the bruises on his ear he had in the days that followed. And he remembers being totally caught off guard.
“I was kind of shocked that I even got hit,” said Kane, who was slow to get up afterward, but didn’t even leave the ice for the ensuing power play. “I didn’t even know that Jackman would hit me there. I was just getting ready to touch it into the zone, I turned back and just remember going right into the boards. It’s scary.”
Scarier than ever these days, as a spate of dirty hits around the league has seen players carried off on stretchers, and several hefty suspensions handed out.
St. Louis’ Maxim Lapierre got a five-game ban for crushing San Jose’s Dan Boyle’s face into the top of the boards in a hit eerily similar to Jackman’s on Kane the following game. Boyle left on a stretcher with a concussion. Colorado’s Cody McLeod got a five-game ban for boarding Niklas Kronwell, who left on a stretcher, too. Dallas’ Ryan Garbutt got five games for knocking out Anaheim’s Dustin Penner with a head shot. The Islanders’ Michael Grabner got two games for hitting Carolina’s Nathan Gerbe in the head. And repeat offender Patrick Kaleta of Buffalo got 10 games for head-hunting Columbus’ Jack Johnson.
All in a one-week span.
There’s no denying the game only gets more dangerous as players get bigger and stronger and faster each year. But the question is, are players also getting more reckless?
“I haven’t noticed guys getting more reckless,” Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. “I think if you look back and watch games from the 1990s and the ‘80s, you’d see a penalty on every single shift. I think it’s the opposite now. It’s unfortunate that there’s been a few guys taken off on stretchers, and I’d like to think that’s somewhat of a coincidence that it all happened in a week. Hopefully it stops. But it’s a fast-paced game. Injuries can happen.”
All players point that out — it’s a fast game, inherently dangerous. It’s easy to say that you simply can’t hit a guy when his jersey number is facing you, but it only takes a split second for a player to unwittingly turn just a shade in the wrong direction, turning a routine hit into a dislocated shoulder, or a broken jaw, or a concussion, or worse.
Hawks agitator Andrew Shaw does most of his work along the boards, where the most dangerous hits usually occur. He said there’s something of an art to effectively — but safely — being physical in the most perilous parts of the rink.
“As hockey players, you kind of read how you’re going in,” he said. “If he has his back to you, or you know he’s going to turn, you kind of have to hold up. The danger zone is when a guy is a few feet out from the boards. You don’t want to shove him, you want to ride him into the boards rather than put him in that vulnerable state.”
The most encouraging sign for player safety is how severe the suspensions are getting. NHL director of player safety Brendan Shanahan hasn’t been shy about wielding his office’s power, particularly for repeat offenders. Buffalo’s Kaleta, for example, got 10 games, even though Johnson wasn’t injured on the play.
“I think it’s great,” said Marian Hossa, who took seven months to recover from a high hit in April, 2012, that earned Raffi Torres a 25-game ban. “For dirty hits, the player should get suspended so they realize you have to be more careful. I know the game’s fast, but you have to be more disciplined. … Can you imagine if [the suspensions] don’t happen? It’s going to be chaos out there. It’s better when guys get suspended, and hopefully they’re going to learn from it.”
Keith agreed that as the suspensions get bigger, the dirty hits will become rarer.
“Nobody wants to lose any money and miss games,” Keith said. “I think the biggest thing players have to look at is, you don’t want to hurt anybody. They’re your fellow players and we’re all in this together, all playing for our livelihoods. So just try to be smart.”
For certain players, however, there may come a point when a suspension’s no longer a severe enough suspension. For every “reformed” player such as Minnesota’s Matt Cooke, there are still too many Patrick Kaletas out there.
And while everyone likes a big, bone-crushing hit, nobody wants to see anymore players carried off the ice.
“They’re getting bigger and bigger, which is good,” Kane said of the suspensions. “But some of these guys seem to be repeat offenders. You’ve got to talk to them or something. You look at a guy like Kaleta in Buffalo, he’s done it numerous times. It’s like, why do you keep doing it? I don’t know. I think that’s where you get scared, with the repeat offenders. For guys that it’s the first time, it’s probably an accident, but if you keep doing it, maybe there’s something there.”