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.