I know you’re not going to like this article. Why? Because I’m not sure I like this article. As with most hard questions that rattle around in my brain, it stems from a conversation I had with a friend of mine. I was having lunch with “The Expert” at a busy food court a few weeks ago. We had just finished buying our inaugural Jets gear and so of course hockey dominated the conversation . After thoroughly assessing the Jets for next season the conversation turned towards Sid and of course concussions. We were discussing possible solutions to what is becoming a very large and looming issue in the NHL, when “The Expert” blurted out something completely from left field; is hitting even really part of hockey? I was shocked. I felt like he had just burnt down my local church and was standing over the ashes laughing. This was sacred ground he was treading on here. I stared at him blankly and realized that even though I wanted to let him have it with both barrels, I just couldn’t because as much as I hate to admit it, he may have a point.
You have to remember “The Expert” is a purist. He plays, coaches and follows every player in the NHL with a type of religious fervour usually reserved for people that strap C4 to their chests. I asked him to elaborate and he basically put it like this: “Hitting is not checking. Checking is using your body to retrieve the puck. What we see at high levels is hitting to exact a physical toll on the player with the puck. Those are two different things”. So we had to ask ourselves, had we drifted away from the pure game of hockey and made it something different? Honestly when playing shinny (what I consider the purest form of hockey) you don’t usually crush someone into the boards, nor do you in ball hockey, or any other form of the sport. Now I know what you’re thinking, Mike has spent too much time on the west coast, and taken one too many hits from the bong. No I am not wearing flowers in my hair and asking why can’t we all just get along, but I am wondering what the game would look like (theoretically) without hitting as we know it right now.
Co-incidentally, around the same time we had our conversation a local sports story was broadcast on the suppertime news. It was about a minor hockey association in North Vancouver that was offering its teenage house players two tracks to play in, one track with hitting and one without. Of course I turned up the volume and listened intently. They interviewed a 15 year old who was a former rep player and asked him why he choose the non hitting house league over rep hockey. His answer was simple: “because I can actually enjoy playing the game now” .The reporter then went on to ask if he had ever sustained an injury in rep hockey, what followed was a long list that included cracked ribs, a separated shoulder and a broken collar bone. Many parents where asked about the quality of the game and if it was still enjoyable to watch. Every person answered that it was actually more enjoyable to watch. They intimated that the game flowed with greater speed and pure hockey plays seemed to form more naturally.
I was still reeling. How could hockey be fun to watch without hitting? Now again, I know what you’re thinking, Mike’s on a soap box trying to preach to us about his new non hitting theory. Well not really, I’m not exactly convinced that the game would benefit, it would be different, but would it be better? For example would you really want to take away a defenders ability to lay out an open ice hit on someone trying to cut through the middle? I don’t think so. Would the intensity of a game at the elite level ratchet down if there wasn’t as much of a physical price to pay? Perhaps, but on the flip side of that coin would the Stanley cup playoffs be better if it were a test of skill rather than attrition?
I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m asking questions, and I’m not sure about the answers. I don’t want to be “that guy”, the granola cruncher that thinks we should all live in a world of cotton candy and unicorns. I watch the games and share the same excitement when retribution is handed out to a player on the opposing team, and I want to see the players I hate stapled to the boards. I freely admit those things, I’m just wondering if that’s really hockey or something else.
In the end, I know that hitting is the way the game has evolved and therefore is part of the game. It will never be taken out of the game, and I’m not necessarily convinced it should ever be curtailed. This leads us back to close the circle and the original problem. What do we do about concussions and serious injuries? Do we change the game or let players accept the consequences? Hard questions, with no easy answers.