Hockey people, by which I mean players, coaches, owners, analysts,
commentators and casual fans, have an idiosyncratic definition of the term
“intent to injure”. Without belabouring the point, a play deemed to have an
intent to injure would have to look something like one player quite deliberately
and viciously taking a targeted, baseball-style swing to another player’s head
with his stick. A very clear-cut and unambiguous gesture that says clearly to
anyone and everyone watching: “I am doing this right now because I am trying to
hurt you as much as possible”. Any other time one player is hurt on a violent
play, it seems as though a majority of people will make the argument that the
outcome was just an unfortunate consequence of a “tough play”, a “legal hit”, or
the impossibly vague “hockey play”. The minority who hold a dissenting opinion
are often those who cheer for the team of the injured player. This minority of
course usually wants harsh reprimand or justice, whether it is in the form of
league sanctioned punishment or for their team to return the violence in kind.
They want blood, or a pound of flesh.
But here is the rub: with the exception of an interference-style hit with the
intent to separate a puck-carrier from the puck, all hits have intent to injure.
Readers who have also read Ken Dryden’s The Game will recognize the history
behind this type of hit. Its roots are a historical artifact from hockey’s
earlier days, when it was an onside game. Prior to the 1930’s, forward passes in
hockey were illegal, much like they still are in rugby. Consequently the only
way to move the puck up the ice into the offensive zone was to carry it. So
defensemen, looking to stop the opposing team’s advance were left with two
options; attempt to strip the puck away from the opposing player’s stick, or
attempt to separate the opposing player from the puck. The latter option was the
much easier option and therefore was the preferred method. And a really easy way
to stop the advance of a player carrying the puck was to stand in his way,
barring entry to that player’s offensive zone. And so hitting in hockey had a
very clear purpose.
Today of course, hockey is an offside game and forward passes are perfectly
legal as long as the receiving player is not on the wrong side of the defending
team’s blue line. Players are generally bigger, faster, stronger, and they are
also more skilled. Players like Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr were so exceptional
because they were defensemen who were highly skilled skaters and passers while
other defensemen in their time did not compare in terms of skating ability and
skill. So a higher general skill level in the NHL necessarily means the game is
being played at a faster pace, largely because the players themselves are faster
on their skates.
Being a fast skater has many advantages in hockey. The faster player will win a
footrace to a puck. A fast skater can more quickly escape coverage and open
himself up to receive a pass. And of course, a fast skater is harder to hit.
Unfortunately, a player moving at a faster speed is also subject to greater
force on impact when hit. So injuries are bound to be more frequent and more
severe. And not surprisingly, they are. More importantly, hitting in today’s
game can look very different than hitting in a 1920’s NHL game.
In the 1990’s, we started to see hits in hockey that were different from the
hits of a prior generation, due in large part to the sheer force behind them.
People who remember watching hockey in that era will no doubt know I am
referring to players like Scott Stevens, among others. Incredibly forceful,
open-ice hits to unsuspecting players moving through the neutral zone. Despite
the clutch-and-grab style of play that was common in that era, players still
moved at a faster pace than they did historically. Because of the two-line pass
rule that forbade passing the puck across both a blue line and the centre red
line, there was less room in the neutral zone for players to pass the puck. The
puck had to be carried through the neutral zone which meant a more congested
neutral zone, trap defense, and prime opportunity for the Scott Stevenses of the
NHL to lay those devastating hits. This was also around the time that
concussions were being recognized as a growing problem, with prominent players
like Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya and Keith Primeau suffering severe concussions
that cut seasons and careers short.
The vernacular of the time was a window into the culture of hockey people when
these hits were being discussed. “You gotta keep your head up” and other idioms
like it all seemed to suggest that hockey was a rough game and players had to be
careful. This was not exactly breaking news to anyone. But implicit in the
dialogue was a notion that should have been troubling to anyone paying
attention, and it said “keep your wits about you and look out for yourself,
because nobody else is doing it for you.”
When the NHL changed some rules (and started enforcing others) after the
resumption of play following the lockout in 2005, the game had opened up
considerably. The two-line pass was made legal and interference and hooking
plays were penalized with greater regularity. The “new” NHL allowed skilled
players to flourish. Smaller players who previously would have gone undrafted in
the 1990’s because of their lack of size were able to succeed on the merit of
their skill as a greater ice surface and enforcement of rules allowed them to
skate and use speed to their advantage. It has made for some very exciting
hockey for fans, to be sure. But the pace of the game has had disastrous
consequences with respect to hitting.
While play was becoming faster and hits more dangerous, the “keep your head up”
from previous eras evolved into talk of players “putting themselves in
vulnerable positions”. Now not only do players have to be aware of their
surroundings, but if they are hurt by a hit then it is surely their fault. The
victim bares all the blame. Interestingly enough, when a player’s stick makes
contact with another player’s head, a penalty is automatically assessed; intent
never enters into the discussion. Anecdotally, I would guess that over 90% of
high sticking penalties are accidental. Regardless, they are deemed penalties.
The message is clear: Players are responsible for their sticks, no matter what,
and high sticking is forbidden. However when the discussion turns to checking
and contact with another player’s head, the same standard is not applied. The
recipient of a head shot is at fault for “putting himself in a vulnerable
position”, or in some cases, for being too short. The pundits argue that hitting
cannot be taken out of the game and that incidental contact with the head is an
unfortunate outcome that is bound to happen in a league that features players
with a 15 inch differential in height. So players are responsible for their
sticks, but not for their hits, and the false choice becomes frequent
concussions, or a game so fundamentally different due to the banning of hitting
that it no longer resembles the game of hockey that we all love so dearly.
So the body check, once used as a tactic to stop a puck carrier from entering
the offensive zone, now only exists for one reason: because the traditionalists
like it. Imagine how different the game of hockey must have looked to a fan once
the forward pass was made legal. This was a fundamental rule change that has
completely altered how the game was played. Prior to Jacques Plante, goalies did
not wear masks; now there is a rule that play must be stopped if a goalie loses
his mask. Yet hitting is considered sacrosanct because somehow without it,
hockey just would not be hockey. This is the culture in which today’s NHL
exists. Injuries may be regretful, but violence is never discouraged.
Picture this mise en scène: Player A is attempting to retrieve the puck from
along the boards. Opposing Player B sees him, and begins to skate hard toward
Player A, ultimately pasting Player A against the boards. Player A crumples to
the ice upon impact. The crowd goes wild.
Another: Cocky rookie, Player C, who has been often criticized by players and
broadcasters alike for his brash demeanour, attempts to skate out of his own
zone with the puck. Player D, who in the previous game attempted to fight Player
C, targets Player C in his sight and charges at Player C, full tilt. A deft
skating maneuver by Player C is the only thing that saves him from a potential
concussion or knee injury.
One more: Player E skates to the puck near the benches in the neutral zone to
chip it into offensive territory. After doing so, Player F, a defender on the
opposing team delivers a late hit to Player E that normally would have driven
him into the glass, except that the contact occurred near the benches, and
instead Player E’s head was driven into the edge of the glass that separates the
In all three of these scenarios, one constant is intent to injure. You cannot
ever convince me that in any of those cases, Players B, D and F were not looking
to hurt the other player. Charging at full tilt implies you are looking to hurt
someone. And what is the difference between “hurt” and “injure”? One could argue
that “hurt” implies pain, and that there is a difference between feeling pain
and being injured. To me this is merely splitting hairs. The difference between
the two terms is only a thesaurus. A late hit is always an attempt to injure.
Always. It serves no other purpose; certainly not to separate a player from the
puck, since there is no puck. To intimidate? Yes, a late hit serves to
intimidate through violence and the threat of more of the same. But a hit that
is not painful does not intimidate, so again, the intent is to hurt, and to hurt
is to injure.
In the first scenario outlined above, Player B could just as easily hold up
Player A with a less forceful direct hit that still achieves the goal of
separating Player A from the puck. But he does not. The force of the check is a
clear indication that he was looking to hurt Player A, even if only a little. In
the second scenario, hockey people would likely unanimously agree that Player D
was targeting Player C specifically due to a prior grudge, because as well all
know, hockey players “remember these things”. Without mincing words, the
motivation here is revenge, and the intent is to hurt. In covering the
Habs-Bruins game played on March 8th, Arpon Basu wrote “I can’t convince myself
that Chara wanted that exact outcome. He wanted something, but not that.” I
believe this is a very accurate, well-written sentiment. It makes two things
very clear. First, that Chara knew exactly what he was doing; that the hit was
late, and that he was going to hurt Pacioretty. Secondly, that Chara was not
looking to give Pacioretty a concussion or a broken fourth cervical vertebra,
even though he was trying to hurt him. The dissonance between these two things
should be striking, because it shows a disconnect between cause and effect. I
know Chara is a very smart man, one who speaks seven languages. But the logic of
“I was trying to hurt him, but not severely” is akin to shooting someone but
hoping you miss all their bones and vital organs. Sadly, this cognitive
dissonance seems to register with hockey people.
I do believe that hitting does serve a purpose in hockey. I also believe that
certain types of hits should not be tolerated. Hits from behind are already
illegal, as they should be, and the league has started to take action on
“blindside” hits as well. These are all positive steps. More needs to be done to
protect today’s players, as they are without question the league’s most valuable
assets, and human beings. All the debate over whether the hit was legal, or
there was “intent to injure” that occurs every time a player suffers an injury
is absolute bogus, because 99 times out of 100, when a player gets seriously
hurt, the outcome could have been predicted due to the violent nature of the
play. If you are trying to hurt, then you are trying to injure. And when you
make a rule, you enforce it consistently.
Hockey people, when discussing supplemental discipline will often suggest that
intent is something that always bears considering but is impossible to
determine. I completely disagree.
Editor’s Note: Other HW writers will be weighing in with their
thoughts on the hit and non-suspension later today.