Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks

If you’re a hockey fan, you’re used to controversial hits.  They happen every night.  If you really wanted to, you could spend all day, every day, all season long doing nothing but watching videos of borderline thwacking and fighting with people on the internet about whether they were dirty or not.

But in last Monday’s Hawks-Oilers game, fans were treated to a rarer spectacle: a controversial non-hit. Nail Yakupov got the puck in the D-zone along the boards.  Daniel Carcillo lined him up from the circle.  Yakupov dished the puck up towards the blue line.  Carcillo decided to finish his check. Yakupov turned back towards the corner and ducked.  Carcillo launched himself, somewhat comically, into brainless glass.  And, at the next whistle, commentator Eddie Olczyk freaked out.

If you are Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers, you cannot do that to a player that’s coming. That’s a dangerous play by Nail Yakupov, because what happens is, when you duck like that, that player is going to go over the top of your shoulder and hit his face or his neck against the boards. To me, that should be a penalty on Yakupov. I see it at the amateur level; I’d like to see USA Hockey and amateur referees take control of that type of play. I hope it’s not being taught by coaches, but that’s a dangerous play. Somebody’s going to get really hurt when a player ducks like that.

Olczyk is right that Yakupov’s decision to duck is potentially dangerous for Carcillo.  If Carcillo is moving a little faster, if Yakupov is a little further off the boards, if the seconds and inches go wrong, Carcillo’s head could have hit that glass in a most icky way. Someone could surely have been hurt.

But, as I’m sure Eddie Olcyzk knows, hockey is always dangerous.  Someone could always get hurt. A guy could try to check you weakly, bounce off your body, hit his head on the ice, and get a concussion.  A guy could miss his check from pure ineptitude, slip into the boards, and get a concussion. You could bend over digging the puck in front of the net and a guy could come in too fast, trip, somersault over your back, and land right on top of his head. If ‘potentially dangerous’ was an adequate reason to ban something from the game, we would have done away with fighting, hitting, sticks, skates, and elbow pads long ago. If our major priority is to ensure that no human being is ever put in a position where they might get injured, we should give up hockey altogether.

So, logically speaking, the fact that we are still playing, watching, and enjoying hockey is proof that we are all willing to accept some levels of danger.  We’d rather go through the messy process of drawing imperfect lines between clean/acceptable and dirty/unacceptable violence, even knowing that sometimes players will be badly hurt on perfectly legal plays, than make the drastic changes that’d be necessary to keep everyone safe.  The question, then, is not whether or not ducking a check is dangerous.  It’s whether it’s unacceptably dangerous.

And it’s hard to know that.  Hockey suffers from a lot of dangerous-sprawl.  There are a few things (sucker punches, stick-swinging, slew-footing, checks from behind about three feet off the boards) that are dangerous and universally condemned.  There are other things (finishing your check, big open ice hits, fighting in defense of a teammate) that are dangerous and universally celebrated. In between is a vast space full of controversy.  There’s tripping a guy on a breakaway- sure, it’s illegal and could be dangerous, but sometimes you gotta do it.  There’s lifting into a hit with your shoulder- sometimes it’s concussive, but that’s how guys are trained. There’s staged fights- men ruin their hands, orbital bones, and brains doing this, but it excites the crowd and keeps fan favorites in the Show.  Every single violent gesture in the game will draw some commentator who thinks that’s what makes hockey great and another who thinks it’s worse than Bertuzzi.  So, since Olczyk has already staked out the “no place for that in the game” position on ducking, let me make the counterpoint:  ducking is an absolutely reasonable thing to do when one is being lined up from a distance, and particularly when one is being lined up from a distance by Dan Carcillo.

First of all, it’s not clipping.  Clipping is defined in the rulebook, quite explicitly, as ‘delivering a hit’.  Yakupov didn’t deliver shit.  He turned around and left.  It’s not the same play as intentionally running a guy at the knees, or crouching and then launching into an oncoming checker.  Yakupov did nothing whatsoever to Carcillo, therefore I have trouble seeing how the clipping penalty might apply.  While one does have a certain responsibility for the safety of one’s opponents in hockey, such duties mostly have to do with not intentionally injuring them in particular ways.  Nothing in the rules, either the letter or the spirit, demands that one take actions to prevent one’s opponents from hurting themselves.  Nothing asks that players put the other team’s safety ahead of their own, which  is fundamentally what Olczyk is demanding.

This demand is based on the assumption that,  while ducking a hit is unacceptably dangerous, taking a hit is unpleasant but basically safe. However, taking hits isn’t safe, and taking hits from Daniel Carcillo is especially unsafe.  Ask someone who thinks ducking is wrong what Yakupov should have done, and they’ll say, oh, he should have just taken it on the shoulder, the boards would absorb the force, no harm done.  But there is no way of knowing that this would have been a harmless hit. If you were a young skill player on an opposing team, and you saw Carcillo coming in on you, would you feel comfortable assuming he intends nothing more than a perfectly proper bump at the perfectly proper height?  And even if he did have pure intentions, guys get hurt on nice clean shoulder checks gone awry all the time.  Hell, guys get hurt on nice clean shoulder checks that don’t go awry.  The notion that there is no danger nor risk of injury in ordinary NHL checking is patently false.  If Yakupov takes that hit, there is a non-zero chance that it damages him.  And Yakupov allowing himself to get hurt is not only bad for him personally but bad for his team, making it wrong according to two different axes of hockey values.

So, to summarize, Yakupov is being asked to put himself in danger from a player who himself has a long, ugly history of unethical and illegal plays, possibly to the detriment of his team, in order to protect the other guy’s career.  Sorry, kittens, I hate to say it, but no one gets a guaranteed hockey career, certainly one not guaranteed by opponents at risk to themselves.  Carcillo, bless his black and withered heart, plays in a way that routinely treads very close to the possibility of ending all sorts of careers.  He often endangers other people’s brains and bones for his own benefit and that of his team, so it seems hypocritical at the least to suggest that others should sacrifice their bodies for his job.  You want to play hard, play fast, play on the edge?  Well, then sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. That’s the game.

And why, after all, is this potentially injurious play so much worse than all the other potentially injurious plays in the world?  Huge open ice hits, for example, are extremely dangerous. They send guys flying onto their heads all the time.  But you’re never going to catch Eddie Olczyk or any other played-the-game broadcaster saying, you can’t hit people like that, it’s not safe.  They’ll say, shit, well, it’s a physical game and sometimes that happens.

Why is the potential to hurt someone by dodging a hit less acceptable than the potential to hurt someone by delivering one?  Could it be, in part, an issue of machismo?  Research the question around the internet and you’ll find that critiques of ducking almost always involve demeaning the toughness, courage, or masculinity of a player who does it. Such players are called cowards, pussies, chickens. It’s not just that Carcillo might have been hurt; it’s that he might have been hurt because Yakupov did something unmanly. Hockey celebrates aggression and condemns evasion, therefore- for a certain self-consciously “traditional” set of fans, analysts, and broadcasters- active injury of an opponent is paradoxically more justifiable than the passive variety.  They’ll defend to the death a player’s right to finish his checks, no matter who is left sprawled and twitching on the ice after, because finishing your check is a sign of toughness and f**k the other guy if he can’t take it. Ducking a check, however, no matter how strategically sensible, looks like cowardice, and moreover, cowardice that might result in harm to the Good Canadian Boy who’s just Playing Hard like Coach Told Him To. Tough Guy Creams Skill Player is a classic scrap of hockey narrative, exactly the kind of thing we all expect and want to see. Tough Guy Bashes Own Face Into Glass in Unsuccessful Attempt to Cream Skill Player is less satisfying.  No wonder Eddie Olczyk hates to see it.