I am going to do anyone who is reading this article a huge favour, go to youtube and type thunderous hockey hits. Then sit back and enjoy the lost and continually dying art of the body check. These days there are many available links to hockey highlights that purport to show a huge must see hit, yet rarely am I impressed. Recent rule changes and the over enforcement of older rules has changed the landscape of the game drastically. These adjustments certainly make the game safer but at the cost of excitement, tradition and the overall integrity of the game. I have a little nephew who loves the game the way every good Canadian should and I dread the day I hear him ask his dad what a hip check is. Remember those, man they were great.
I wonder to myself what the career of hall of fame defensemen Scott Stevens would look like if he were to be drafted this year. Suspensions continue to pile up and as the new rules age so will the careers of physically minded NHLers. The longer these rules are around more and more people will be labelled repeat offenders and more and more teams will be without key role players. I doubt Stevens would have a full 82 games under his belt at the end of his career if it were to start today. That is of course assuming he doesn't do like most others in the NHL have done so far and tone it down a few dozen notches. Hockey has always been a physical game, one that was never meant for the feint of heart. NHL Players are paid an exorbitant amount of money to play a dangerous game with full knowledge of the risks that come along with getting paid a lot of money to do something they love. It's hazard pay, they do it because very few can. In a league where the cost of playing a solid physical game has become higher than the benefit its easy to see why the hits of todays game cannot hold a candle to the thrilling hits of just a few short decades ago. So what do the Vancouver Canucks have to do with this you ask?
The most hated team in the league has not only perfected the art of the dive but playing the victim and putting themselves in vulnerable positions seems to be a deliberate part of their game plan. When I was a kid playing and watching hockey the mantra as dictated by controversial hockey icon Don Cherry was always, keep your head up and protect yourself. Points that are often criticized as a form of victim blaming and are dismissed as ignorant. Former Leafs general manager Brian Burke recently came out with an article where he likened such dismissals to getting into a pen with a bull and being surprised when it doesn't turn out to be the safest venture. I think in a game where large muscular men fly at each other at tops speeds with blades attached to their feet and large sticks in their hands at a certain point we need to get off of our high horses and realize that a certain degree of responsibility for the safety of an individual player is that player himself.
On Saturday November 2nd the Maple Leafs were defeated by the Vancouver Canucks by a score of 4-0. The game saw the Leafs Penalized a whopping 14 times for a total of 52 minutes in penalties. This outlandish number should not come as a surprise to anyone who watched the game. Throughout the game the speedy Canucks were often the first ones to the puck but the Leafs not being slugs themselves often were following closely behind. For a team that has recently embraced a tougher grinding game plan this should have favoured the Leafs. With many opportunities to lay on the body, generate energy and intimidate a smaller Vancouver Canucks team The Leafs should come out on top the way they do against other teams that play a similar style like the Montreal Canadiens. As stated before this was not the case. Canucks players got to the puck first along the boards 9 times out of 10 and like clockwork would immediately put their heads down and turn their back directly to their oncoming opponent. Now Imagine you are James Van Riemsdyk and you're the first guy on the scene. What do you do? Your first option is to stop, admit defeat and allow the player to have and skate off with the puck. Does that sound okay to you because it didn't to JVR. He went with the only other option, hit your opponent. The problem with this is that his back is to you and an injury is almost as certain as the 2-5 minute boarding penalty you are about to receive. This was not a one time occurrence and was a major contribution to the parade to the penalty box that you don't often see in games between two teams that rarely meet. Instead of generating momentum by playing the body it sent Vancouver to the power play and tempers flared to the point that even Phil Kessel dropped the gloves.
Hockeybuzz Columnist Mike Augello commented via Twitter that this tactic was foolish and someone was going to end up with a spinal injury all for the sake of a power play. I heartily agree. They are the con artists of the NHL except instead of diving in front of oncoming traffic so they can sue the driver they turn their backs to large oncoming men to draw penalties. The Canucks are not just setting themselves up for injury down the road they are taking the integrity and personal accountability out of the game. If other teams follow suit which believe me is happening, soon we will see teams unwilling and unable to play the body for fear of spending the game watching from the penalty box. Add the sheer amount of flagrant dives and take into account the level of frustration this inflicts on the opposing team and you have a recipe for a chippy and even more dangerous overall game.I for one would rather see players getting creamed via perfectly legal checks than a group of frustrated athletes in peak physical condition watching the games from the press box. If these trends don't stop soon the NHL will devolve to the point where it is completely and totally unwatchable for hockey fans.
For those of you who agree that hockey is trending in the right direction, those who insist that putting safety above all else is the way to go. Allow me to direct you to a more appropriate sport and save you the hassle of changing this one. Might I suggest baseball, basketball or soccer? Perhaps a rousing game of tennis or golf would be more your speed? Whatever you decide is right for you and your children is fine by me but leave the hockey discussions to the hockey fans. I'm looking at you every hockey writer ever.