Since the issue seems to have overtaken all else in the hockey world in terms of importance and exposure, I figure the Downie hit is as good of a play as any to spark my first commentary on hockeybuzz.
First off, due to some frustrating technical problems with the NHL Center Ice Online package, I was unable to see the hit live, but I did listen to the audio feed from the Rogers telecast and, upon hearing the initial reactions of the announcers, I was terrified that Downie, our perplexing primo prospect, and a kid I've tried to follow throughout his junior career, had prematurely pulled one of his signature meltdowns and killed his chances of ever making it in this league.
So I watched the hit. Repeatedly. Listened to all the commentary and read all of the reactions I could find. Couldn't get it out of my head, obsessively trying to eliminate the hometown bias that is really pulling for a kid with a tragic yet checkered past and see this incident objectively. And my conclusion is actually quite simple: The hit was bad, no question. But not that bad.
My logic, in the end, is quite simple. While head shots are an issue the game certainly needs to address (as any Flyers fan can attest, our team has had as many concussion issues over the past decade as any other in the league), the border between a career-ending shoulder to the jaw and a routine shoulder to shoulder check is about ten inches, at twenty-five miles an hour. Literally a split-second between all in a day's work and goodnight. Deliberate shots to the face aside (ala Chris Pronger's elbow), these sorts of hits, while sad to see and scary to watch, are a part of the game that is unavoidable given the way players are coached and the game is currently enforced.
Watching the video, one can clearly see that Downie left his feet before the hit, that the hit was late, and one can reasonably assume that the intent existed to injure (or, as thousands of hockey coaches and players worldwide phrase it, "lay somebody out" ). All of these things add up to an illegal hit, which were all addressed by the officials in the game with the match penalty and invariably will be addressed by the league disciplinary office with Downie's inevitable suspension. But to call this hit "the worst hit I've ever seen" (to quote Christoph Schubert) and cry for Downie's eternal banishment (thanks, Jason Blake) is either an extreme overreaction or simple ignorance. Every year, the NHL sees hundreds of hits where players leave their feet, and dozens of hits in the exact fashion of Downie's (Colby Armstrong is my, ahem, favorite example). And while Downie clearly violated rules present in the game, this hit seems to be just another version of the same old hit we see anytime a player skates around the net with his head down, albeit with much sadder and more controversial consequences.
Anyone who plays hockey, and especially those with a zeal for the rough stuff, can attest that one of the most appealing sights is a player gliding towards you with his head down, inviting the big hit that sends the crowd into a roar and gets you slaps on the back from your teammates and coaches. Hitting is part of the game, and is often one of the most emphasized parts of the game. Whole classes of players exist with the sole purpose of hitting everything that moves, and this behavior is an accepted part of the game. In fact, North American hockey players often cite this style of play as their signature when compared to the stick-checking and cheap shots prevalent in European hockey. Players who get hit accept the fact that somebody is trying to hit you, and people who get hit with their heads down learn to look around. It's the way hockey is taught and accepted. While this hit is clearly a violation of a number of rules, it is a small deviation (literally milliseconds and inches) away from a praiseworthy play, and that is where I have a problem with all of the subsequent uproar. Hits from behind (Ala Andrej Meszaros), sticks to the face (ala Chris Simon), knee-on-knee hits (Hello Darcy Tucker), and incidences like Bertuzzi-Moore have no gray area. They are a black eye on the game and are frowned upon by all players at all levels. Hits like Downie's aren't what are keeping fans away in the United States, but rather it is the completely unacceptable incidents like Chris Simon's hit on Ryan Hollweg that stigmatize our sport as brutal and unmarketable. In contrast, Downie's hit, one half second earlier and three inches lower, would be a promotional video for Versus (where it would be watched by far fewer people).
What the NHL needs to do is recognize that these sort of hits have become an issue in the league, just as the NFL has done and numerous junior leagues are beginning to do. Simply give an immediate penalty for any sort of hit to the head, or accept the fact that these things will happen with more frequency than can assure the safety of all players all the time. As long as players who have built their careers playing the a checking game play in the biggest and fastest league on the planet, collisions will occur, and many of them will be violent. Certainly, Downie's hit was out of line and will be dealt with within the framework that the league has in place. But calling this hit "the worst hit I have ever seen" is an insult to all of the players injured and maimed by plays that exist completely outside of the way the game should be played.