Pic from www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com

When I played junior hockey, I was not tough. To be clear, I’m not tough now either, but back then I was really not tough. Thankfully, I was pretty good at hockey - I finished my second year with the Vernon Vipers as one of the BCHL’s top-20 scorers.

That combination of A) scoring points and B) not being tough, meant that I used to get run a lot. After all, that’s one of the easiest ways to take the bite out of a scorer’s game – let him know that if he wants to get where he knows he needs to, it’s going to involve pain. Congratulations, you just created a perimeter player.

My coach in Vernon was Mike Vandekamp, a man I could pretty easily write a book about after spending two years on his team (I first started writing in junior, and kept a journal both years). He was and likely still is a tough, hard-nosed coach, and he was exactly what I needed at the time. He made me better, and more importantly, tougher. I don’t know Dale Hunter or how he coaches, but I see some similarities from a distance.

Mike had me figured out, and was not subtle about his preference when choosing between my perimeter play and grittier shifts. One day at practice he joined me during the pre-practice skate-around (which is always a weird situation for a player, by the way. Sometimes it’s all laughs and one-of-the-boys back slaps, and other times it’s the World’s Most Serious Hockey Conversation). He told me he was sick of watching me get run, and he wanted me to better defend myself, for my own good, and the team’s.

His general advice was that, when a player was charging to hit me, just get my stick up right in their teeth. For real. He said “we’ll take the PIMs, we’ll stand up for you after it happens, but you can’t keep taking this much abuse.”

To be clear, he didn’t want me to cross-check guys in the mouth for kicks as much as he just wanted me to present my stick at a high-ish level – if you want to continue on and ram your face into my stick, that’s your call. But here’s where my stick is.

I’m sure that sounds brutally violent to some of you, but from junior hockey on you learn that if someone has to get hurt, you’ll take the “you over me” trade any day. Especially in playoffs.

Dale Hunter is in the news today for his quote that he didn’t find Niklas Backstrom’s cross-check to the face of Rich Peverly that bad because they Bruins had been after his head for the entire series to date (Backstrom missed 40 games with a concussion this season). His full quote from Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times:

“Every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on, he gets blockered to the head by [Tim] Thomas the game before. He’s protecting his head,” Hunter said Tuesday. “He just came out for 40 games. You have to protect your head. With his stick being in his face like that, it was a dangerous play on his part.”

I don’t think he’s going to be suspended. If you slow it down frame by frame, where was [Peverley's] stick? It was up in his face first,” the Caps coach said. “Re-watch it again, where his stick’s up in his face, and Nicky because of the stick in his face, that the guy put his stick up like that and Nicky reacted to it.”

Whether any of that is true or not, it points to the thinking in Washington: whether that play is right or wrong, they don’t give a shit. They need Nik Backstrom, who’s arguably the best player on either team in their series. They don’t need him taking any garbage from the Bruins, who’ve shown over the past couple seasons that they like to mix it up and get physical.

So, Nick Backstrom, hit first. Speak before spoken to. Don’t take any chances. I ripped Crosby a new one yesterday for chippy play and a lack of focus, but the more I thought about it today, the more I wondered if he hasn’t taken a similar attitude since returning from concussions (though getting involved in more scrums pushes me more towards “no” in his case).

I’m not defending the cheap cross-check to Peverly’s mouth, I’m just trying to explain the mindset: if one of us might get hurt here, I’d prefer it be you.

Comments (24)

  1. I agree with you Justin, and if I’m a team’s best player (as Backstrom is) who just missed half a season to a dirty hit, I’m going to knock every one of your teeth out before you get close to my head. Come in high, eat with a straw for 6 weeks…all night long, every night.

    Maybe I get a few games (but I bet not, since he’s a superstar), but for sure I don’t get my lucrative career ended early because of some Rene Bourque-like tool who wants to elbow / shoulder check me to the head again.

  2. Never thought about it that way. Makes a whole shit ton of sense though, although I don’t see Peverley moving his stick to avoid Backstrom as threatening but it happens fast.. Backstrom should be pissed at Ovechkin though, because if he doesn’t take about 20 strides and hit Peverley square in the numbers while he was trying to eat it along the boards none of the bullshit happens. Stupid shit by a player who has played a hell of a series so far.

  3. As always, some great perspective here.

    While I don’t disagree with your greater point, I’m a bit hesitant to label Backstrom’s actions at the end of the game as ‘defensive.’ It seemed a lot more like “I’m frustrated we just lost and I’ve been getting the crap kicked out of me, let me find a non threatening Bruin and…well, cross check him in the mouth” If you watch the video, it actually looks like Peverly saw Backstrom coming and raised his stick, which turned out to be a good thing.

    • “If you watch the video, it actually looks like Peverly saw Backstrom coming and raised his stick, which turned out to be a good thing.”

      I dunno. Looks to me like Peverley raising his stick basically directed the force of Backstrom’s crosscheck upward from his chest/shoulder to his face, turning a minor penalty crosscheck into a match penalty crosscheck.

  4. If you slow it down frame by frame, Hunter was just protecting himself from Turgeon’s goal celebration

  5. It’s true. Backstrom has gotten targeted to an unbelievable expense this series. He’s had more punches thrown at him then bryan boyle. I have no problem with the cross check from a player perspective. Obviously, the league may have a different view, but in Backstrom’s case, where he already missed half a season, it was self defense as much as it was violent intent.

    • you know what works great for self defense? not voluntarily getting into bullshit at the end of a game..

      • Does it? How much “bullshit” does Milan Lucic get involved in? And how many times is he on the IR? What about Max Lapierre?

        Meanwhile, Henrik Sedin’s a true Christian at all times and probably has a concussion he’s playing through.

        • ummmm does it not? I could be wrong but if he just skated off the ice after the END OF THE GAME he wouldn’t have needed to “protect” himself from the evils that Peverley apparently wished to inflict.. And I don’t see what Hank Sedin has to do with this.. Since he’s hurt and doesn’t get into the after whistle stuff? I don’t get it..

          • You’re right. You don’t get it. Players who attach violent cost to playing them in such a way that might otherwise put them on the IR don’t end up there from such plays. Which is why, like Lucic, like Messier, they’re never there due to them.

            The thesis of this article is that Backstrom did what he did to attach violent cost to violent behavior directed at him. Turning the other cheek in a violent sport just gets you smacked in the other one.

            Hitting the guy who slapped you back with a hammer will make him think long and hard about the second slap.

        • A true Christian?

  6. The obvious difference here is that Backstrom is initiating the contact, not using his stick to protect himself. Now maybe the overall thought process is one of ‘hey. if you’re going to run me all night you’ll pay for it’ but his actions crossed over from defending himself and into going after someone else.

    • Have you been watching this series? Genuinely curious. Backstrom’s been getting pushed around all series, and while I’m not saying that’s isn’t a legitimate strategy on Boston’s part, it looks to me like either Hunter directly told him to push back, or he simply decided that he’d had enough of it. If you’re judging the situation simply by this single incident, or only looking to assign blame, you’ve missed the point of the article.

  7. If Backstrom doesn’t want a faceful of Thomas blocker, here’s a suggestion: don’t slash Thomas on the hands after he freezes the puck.

    • The puck wasn’t frozen actually. Thomas hadn’t covered it up yet. So instead of doing that, he just figured it was easier to punch Backstrom and then have his teammate wrestle Backstrom to the ground. Backstrom was trying to hit the puck in and Thomas didn’t have a handle on it at all. Go watch some video on it. He punches Backstrom, THEN covers the puck.

  8. Great column. Nobody understands this when I try to explain how deterrence works in hockey.

  9. If guys don’t stop throwing elbows to the head, they’re going to start seeing a lot more stick in mouth.

    Maybe we’ve been hyper sensitized to it all this season, but i don’t remember seeing this many elbows thrown in an entire playoffs season, let alone the first round. People are complaining about fighting and sticks up in the face, but the total amount of dirty play seems to be up this season and the fighting just seems like a byproduct to me.

  10. now you sound like a former player. save the uninformed pontficating for the fairer sex.

    • Save the uninformed sexism for 1920. Plenty of NHL fans are women who have watched every single one of their team’s games this year and are by no means uninformed.

      Excellent article, Justin. So far in his career Nicky has just taken it, and what has it gotten him? A broken thumb, a concussion, a target on his head. Players just have to do what it takes to play well and continue playing, and can’t even think about the consequences since Shanny and the league are so inconsistent anyway. Why NOT fight back with a potential crosscheck when half the time it goes uncalled anyway.

  11. Since it has been missed by several people, although it was alluded to by Shanahan, Peverley’s stick blade is aimed at and makes contact with Backstrom’s helmet before contact is made on the cross check.

    Additionally, Boston has gone after Backstrom’s head 5-6 time over a three game span. I don’t know whether you look at perspectives given on other sites, but Alan May on CSN Washington (it was also posted on Japers’ Rink) has a video looking at the ugliest plays in this series. Backstom has been the target of most of them, almost none of these were penalized. Here is the link:

    or if you don’t accept links from other sites, then delete it.

    Also, since Justin was wondering about Hunter the coach, except for his minimal use of words, he is nothing like Hunter the player. It’s night and day, certainly not what people were expecting.

  12. Nicely written. I appreciate the story on your experience. I’m curious, from my view, it looked like Nicky’s stick was pulled up a bit as Peverly was trying to protect himself, thus drawing the stick to his face instead of to his arms. Anyone else see that?

  13. This is the exact same thing I was taught, and it works. Instead of me taking 50 cheapshots from a player why not make them take 1 in protection and end it forever?

    There used to be a guy that would come in to hit somebody, or when they came in to hit him, would submarine and take out their knees and the refs never called it. He did it to me once, and when he tried a second time my stick met his head, which was only waist level. I told him next time it would be my knee. Over the next few years I saw him pull the same move a lot, but he never tried to do it to me again.

  14. I’ve been reader of Justin’s posts when there was more information about his girlfriend and cat, than about hockey.

    And now, it’s articles, exactly like this, that have made me stop reading Bourney over the last year.

    His insightful and pertinent posts keep me wanting more, and I would spend way too much time reading his marvelously perceptive viewpoints on human nature and what it’s like to be a professional hockey player.

    Bourney, I’m in my final year of grad school and I have had to “tune you out” due to the demands of my degree plan. You sir, are simply too f’in good.

    I wish you the most success and keep up the good work.

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