Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens - Game One

The first round of the playoffs is peak season for controversial hits in the NHL. Teams, eager to set the tone and not yet worn down by weeks of pain and dread, play more aggressively than they did in the death throes of the regular season or will when the Conference Final is on the line. There are a lot of men skating around these days looking to send a message, and because half the teams are already gone, when they succeed, far more people are interested than would have been in January. This collision of incentive to hit big and attention to every big hit that happens is the perfect storm of hockey controversy.

It’s irritating, sometimes, this predictable April-May spasm of hand-wringing and hair-tearing over the bloodiness of the game, but it’s also important. The frame-by-frame analysis of specific hits and the intense debate over the language of rules is how we, collectively, make our peace with loving a sport that is directly based on the maiming of human bodies. We, the fans- but also the players and GMs and sponsors and league officials and everyone- can only enjoy hockey insofar as we can draw these ethical boundaries. No wonder we spend so many hours on the cartography of violence.

Of all the hits of the first round, none drew more attention and debate than Eric Gryba’s open-ice hit on Lars Eller in the first game of the Ottawa-Montreal series.  Eller was in a vulnerable position, trying to take a terribly-considered pass from teammate Raphael Diaz.  Gryba caught him unawares, his shoulder at more or less exactly head-height, and sent Eller spinning, unconscious, until his face smashed hard into the ice and… broke.  Badly.

This was not your average scrap of postseason dirtiness. It’s not a flying elbow or a leaping charge or a head-slam into the turnbuckle. Gryba isn’t making any deliberate gesture that violates one of the prominent contact regulations. He’s trying to throw a clean hit; he just ended up throwing it to Eller’s head.

Such hits- ones that are technically legal but nevertheless disastrous- are a problem for hockey fans. To a great many of our most knowledgeable tactical minds, this was exactly the right play.  Glorious Leader Bourne provided an excellent analysis of the reasons that such hits are expected and necessary, and he’s not wrong about that. The intention of the play was correct according to contemporary standards, it is what most coaches would expect their players to do, and it’s not a gesture so wrong-in-itself that it should be banned from the game.

However, regardless of the tactical value of the play or Gryba’s intent, Eller still ended up unconscious in a pool of blood large enough to drown kittens, and that’s a problem. Yes, as Greg Wyshynski pointed out, hockey has always been brutal, and that’s part of the charm, but there’s no getting around the fact that people find that brutality considerably less charming now than they did in the 50s. The concussion panic is one of the defining sports dramas of our age, and it genuinely terrifies people in a way that bloody noses and broken knees never have. The argument that any kind of concussive hit should pass not only unpunished but unquestioned is a losing one. Just accept it because that’s the way the game is isn’t enough anymore. If stoic indifference to brain injuries is where we try to take our cultural stand, it will be the hill that hockey dies on.

So we have a conundrum: we don’t want to ban that type of hit, because hitting is still a necessary part of the game and it was the right tactical play. But we also can’t just shrug our shoulders and say, awww, too bad, but whatevs when the spinal board comes out. Hockey cannot afford to either soften its play or harden its heart. What, then, are we supposed to do when good plays accidentally go bad?

We punish accidents.

This isn’t such a radical idea. Part of the reason everyone gets tied up in such knots over these kind of collisions is because we’re preoccupied with intent. We think it would be somehow wrong to punish something that wasn’t meant to be dirty. But think about high-sticking, and more particularly the automatic double minor for blood drawn with a high stick: that is a penalty that exists almost exclusively to punish accidents, and it’s universally considered a good one. Although sticks to the face can result from all kinds of good plays (the backswing or follow-through of a shot, a thorny battle in front of the net) and all kinds of pure chance (a fall, a collision, a guy coming up behind unseen), no one- player, coach, or fan- questions that you have to sit for that sort of mistake. We all completely accept that preventing sticks to the head is so important that it transcends concerns about intent and strategic value.

Once upon a time- and by “once upon a time” I mean “for about sixty years”- the NHL faced an epidemic of stick violence. A two-handed baseball swing was a relatively common retaliatory gesture, and stick duels were nearly as common as facepunching. Hockey is a game played with a weapon at hand at all times, and for decades those weapons were used quite freely.  As the game grew in prominence and the real world became a safer place, stickwork became less and less tolerable. Of course, the old-time players who had come up in the nineteen-aughts, when medical treatment in hockey consisted of grain alcohol and sarcasm, sat around telling everyone that it wasn’t so bad and if you want to see hard you should have seen what it was like back in copper country. But that did little to calm the shocked fans and outraged editorials, which only became shriller and more numerous with time.

The NHL tried different methods of quelling stickwork without punishing accidents or good plays. They tried going after only the most egregious offenders with big, send-a-message gestures (the massive suspension that precipitated the Richard Riots stemmed from the Rocket’s penchant for using his lumber to settle disputes). It didn’t work. They tried hefty fines, and those didn’t work either. They tried going after specific gestures- the NHL rulebook has featured literally dozens of different variations of high stick-related penalties over the years- and most of those failed as well.

But now, stickwork has almost entirely been eradicated. Why? Because in the late 80s, the NHL started punishing accidents. They started giving out an unconditional penalty for blood from a high stick, regardless of intention or purpose or effect. Now it’s just the way it is: if you fuck up with your stick, you sit. Period. End of debate.

Is there any reason we couldn’t have the same policy we have with shoulders and unconsciousness as we do with sticks and blood? Why, exactly, is punishing consequences acceptable for a cut lip but unacceptable for a night in the hospital? I’m not even talking about automatic suspensions. I- and I say this as a Habs fan- would have been comfortable with Gryba escaping the Shanaban. But the five-and-a-game he got on the ice was the right call, and I’d be happy to see that become the automatic, unquestioned, unarguable call for any play of equivalent injuriousness.

By all means, go out there, lay your big hits. Send your messages or finish your checks or whatever you feel is necessary to win. But heads are not fair game, and if you miscalculate your thwacking and knock a guy’s mind out of his brain, you’re gone and your team has to kill for a good long while. Even if it was an otherwise legal play. Even if it was a tactical play. After, it can be reviewed for suspensions, and the guys who go far beyond the rules to send a message can have a message sent back to them, courtesy of Mr. Shanahan. But if it’s just a hockey play gone wrong- well, it still went wrong. Sometimes things go wrong and there are consequences. That’s life. That’s also hockey.

Tactics cannot be considered an infinite defense. Yes, Gryba smashing Eller when he was in a vulnerable position was a good decision, in that it stopped the Habs from potentially scoring. But there are a thousand decisions a player could make that might stop an opponent for potentially scoring and we restrict most of them. You know what’s a great way to stop a guy from scoring? Wrestling him from the ice and mounting him from behind like a horny orangutan. That’s effective as hell, that is. Also, the aforementioned two-handers with the stick: terrific way to intimidate and send a message. Hockey used to tolerate both of those things. Coaches used to tell players that those were “good plays” under certain circumstances. They’re not anymore. Just because something is strategically useful doesn’t mean the game as a whole should embrace it. Just because a concussive hit “works” doesn’t mean the concussion isn’t a problem.

Some will say that there is no way to ask players to discipline their hitting in this way. The game is fast and bodies are big and the ice is small and blah blah blah, how can you expect a guy not to get his shoulder up into somebody’s orbital bones every now and then? It’s chaos out there! But the entire game of hockey is about being able to discipline your body amidst chaos. None of the penalties in hockey are absolute. We expect players to know that you can shove in front of the net, but not too much, or it’s interference. We expect players to know that you can whack the puck carrier with your stick, a little, but if you cross the line, it’s slashing. We already expect guys to go out there into that chaos and hit each other hard, but not with elbows or sticks or fists (except in the equally tightly-regulated context of fighting), not in the knees or face or ankles, not after taking this many strides or leaving your feet or within so many paces of the boards or from behind. Not one player has ever made the NHL without learning eleventy billlion ways to precisely control his body, nor without understanding that he’ll get in trouble- either from the coach or the refs, depending on the situation- when he fails to do so.

Adding an automatic five minute major for concussive hits is not going to be the straw that breaks the goon’s back and leaves him a quivering mass of tender sensitivity, unable to hit anyone ever for fear of getting- shock!- a penalty. It’s not going destroy, or even appreciably harm, the game. The vast majority of players the vast majority of the time are already able to lay hits without putting their victims out, under all kinds of varied circumstances, and they’re not going to do jack shit differently. Guys are still going to make the play that Gryba did. But, over time, the knowledge that any serious concussion will have serious consequences will force small changes in the way they make it. Maybe players begin to make a concerted effort to err low rather than high- that’s a desirable change. Maybe it increases the emphasis on separating puck from player and problematizes the ethic of finishing your check in spectacular fashion at all costs- that’s a cultural shift that needs to happen anyway. Maybe the value of players who are 5’10” blocks of solid muscle, who can lay monstrous hits without concern for their shoulder pads fracturing skulls, goes up, and the arms race for the largest possible fourth-liners slows down- that’d be an interesting evolution that would give opportunities to all sorts of good, tough, physical players who are overlooked due to the sport’s pervasive size fetish.

This penalty would likely result in all sorts of perfectly acceptable and even desirable minor transformations in style that would reduce concussions. And yeah, okay, maybe players will skate with their heads down. But players skate with their heads down now; if there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the rash of concussive hits in recent years, it’s that “keep your head up” is an ideal to which even the most elite of the elite cannot perfectly conform. Those guys are still gonna get hit, they’re still gonna lose the puck, and they’re still gonna suffer whatever other tactical disadvantages come from playing blind. People are not suddenly going to stop trying to hit puck carriers just because they might get a five minute major because, as we have already established, 90% of players 90% of the time are able to lay that hit non-concussively. They’ll still take the chance, they’ll just take it a little bit more carefully. And sometimes it’ll go wrong, and they’ll be punished- just like they would be if it went wrong with their lumber instead of their pads.