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Sabre Rattling
Hits to the head are below the belt
COMMENTARY (LGS) — By this time literally zero people in the hockey world are unaware of the events last Thursday at HSBC arena, so no pedantic retelling of them I feel is warranted.  Suffice it to say that whatever you may think of the hit, legal/illegal, clean/dirty, or any combination thereof, that Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators laid on Chris Drury of the Buffalo Sabres, there is little question that Neil’s intent was to deliver as much force to Drury as possible and if he was injured in the process, all the better.  That’s as unemotional as I can get in describing the hit.  I’ve made my opinion of him known in no uncertain terms in multiple posts at my blog over the past two years.

In this writer’s opinion, and, thankfully, in the opinions of a growing number of hockey fans, hits such as these are not only brutal but unnecessary, gratuitous, life-threatening, and, ultimately, need to be removed from the game.  The NHL and a great number of fans and writers (mostly north of the 49th parallel I’ve noticed) disagree with me.  To them I say, fine, but they all know that if that hit was administered by Adam Mair or Sean Avery and the recipient was Sidney Crosby, Mats Sundin or Jason Spezza, their opinions on the hit itself would be completely different. 

In the days since the hit I’ve heard just about every defense of it one might imagine: Neil hit Drury 0.44 seconds after he released the puck which is within the rules, Drury’s helmet was not fastened on properly, Drury should keep his head up, Neil used his shoulder not his elbow etc.  Notice how so much of the defense boils down to blaming the victim and claiming that mantle for the Senators because the mean old Sabres tried to get Jason Spezza or Dany Heatley to prove their cups are for more than just show.  One defense, in particular, though, was really eye-opening as to the depth a fan will sink to defend the actions of a player wearing the sweater one is rooting for; Chris Neil was just playing good defense.  Somehow, Neil, after a few years in the NHL had miraculously internalized the finer points of defensive hockey and executed it with extreme precision and prejudice, leaving his right wing post to glide (already out of position) to the center of the ice and then cut sharply across the ice (putting himself further out of position) just as Drury releases a shot on goal to eliminate this potential threat to, I guess, follow up a rebound to score from the slot… none of which is his responsibility.  The only other place that I’ve seen producing arguments that flimsy recently is the White House.

Ultimately, though, the justifications are irrelevant.  What is relevant is the response from the NHL on the hit and the NHL gave its approval to Neil’s actions.  The question that has been raised since that ruling and the fine levied on Lindy Ruff by Sabres Owner B. Tom Golisano and others, notably John Buccigross at ESPN.com, is should hits to the head be removed from the game of hockey?

In my mind, the issue gets clearer and clearer as the players get bigger, stronger and faster and as the NHL attempts to try and walk the line between being them and the players policing the play on the ice. In the current culture of the NHL a guy like Neil, or Darcy Tucker in Toronto, Sean Avery in New York and Pat Kaleta in Buffalo is rewarded for treating their opposition with little to no respect.  Neil is a hero in Ottawa today.  He knew he wouldn’t be seriously penalized for trying to decapitate Drury and he knew that in all likelihood Buffalo would get penalized.  His team would be rewarded with not only the power play but the removal of one of the Sabres’ best players from the game.  One could almost accuse him of forward-thinking, you know, towards the playoffs.  So, he’s rewarded by the fans with adoration and accolades, the Greater Toronto Media for playing the game ‘the way it’s supposed to be played,’ the NHL for setting up a positive feedback loop within the rules-set and his teammates and coaches for ‘helping them win the game.’  The NHL is practically inviting this kind of attack on its best and brightest players.   If you’re a guy of limited skill like Neil, why wouldn’t you take a run at a guy of greater skill like Drury? 

Well, old-guard hockey people will tell you it’s because there’s no fear anymore, and to an extent I agree.  Eric McErlain linked to an interview with Donald Brashear of the Capitals warning us about today’s game, the effect on the self-policing model that doesn’t seem to be working anymore, and, in specific, Chris Neil.  In essence, I agree with Mr. Brashear, but at the same time I have to wonder why if Neil is such a nuisance why he and the other enforcers/tough guys around the league don’t truly take care of the problem like they are supposed to?  It’s all well and good to say there’s something wrong with the game, but, at the same time, he and his coach Glen Hanlon have a couple of guys who need to be protected and it seems to me that if I were them, the next time Ottawa came to town Mr. Neil would be hounded off the ice and reminded just what his responsibilities are when he puts on that sweater.  Not that I’m singling out the Caps or anything, there are 28 other teams who need to do the same thing.  Either Neil will get tired of having his face beaten in or he’ll cut out the WWE stuff.  The same thing goes for Jaarko Ruutu, Raffi Torres, and Dallas Drake, just to name a few.

The NHL is caught in that unfortunate position of knowing that self-policing is truly the preferable way to go but can’t be seen as condoning such an out-of-fashion concept to the demographic they’ve been trying to target in the Bettman Regime, namely the American Middle Class, who has embraced, wholly, the concept of 3rd party justice.  So, in the end, we have the mixed signals that are invariably sent in situations like these that aren’t as cut and dried to hockey people as, say, the Bertuzzi-Moore or McSorely-Brashear incidents.  Mix all of that with a culture that has also embraced the idea the idea of winning at any cost which has produced a generation of hockey players that have little to no respect for each other.  Not all of them, mind you, but enough to erode the seeming effectiveness of a self-policing justice model.  Unfortunately, humans will not happily accept an unfair judgment from a 3rd party, in this case the NHL or its on-ice officials, and if an injustice is not righted, eventually will seek redress of grievance regardless of ‘the code’ or ‘the rules’ or ‘the league.’

So, with all of that in mind, I have come to the conclusion that there just is no room for head-hunting in the NHL, not with the shoulder, the knee, stick, forearm, inner elbow, head, a French-tickler or a used jock-strap.  If the players are not going to respect each other and the league does not and should not be in the business of appearing inconsistent then the only recourse is to put a blanket ban on hits to the head.  Incidental contact is a simple two-minute minor, deliberate contact is a 5 minute major, a game misconduct and a minimum 2 game suspension.  Circumstances surrounding the hit will, of course, factor into the length of the suspension and size of any fine.

Hitting for effect, to pry the puck free, to make someone uncomfortable when they have the puck, to eliminate the man from the play are all valid reasons to hit someone and are within the context of the game itself.  Hits like Neil’s were done outside of the flow of play, and even if he felt it necessary to eliminate Drury from the play, there were any number of other ways he could have hit him to accomplish that job.  If you want my model physical guy in today’s NHL it is former-Sabre Mike Grier.  There are others in his mold, but he is the one I know the best and have watched for the longest.  His checks are always with the shoulder, rarely, if ever, inappropriate for the situation and done without malice and with respect. 

Making all hits to the head penalties is the only rational thing to do.  The force the players generate, the speed of the game, the equipment in use and the culture of the league all point to removing all hits to the head from the game.  Tom Benjamin (a man I rarely agree with) makes the extremely sober and salient point about how the referees were irresponsible in not handing Neil a penalty on the play.  They have to make an attempt to show that they will protect the players because if they don’t then the players will take matters into their own hands and you may not like the results.  The last thing anyone wants is another Bertuzzi incident, but as long the NHL chooses to interpret their rulebook this way when, as Tom B. says, common sense tells you otherwise, another incident like that is inevitable.  We narrowly avoided one last week.

By Thomas Luongo, LGS Columnist
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