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.