There’s No Such Thing As Protection, For Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Or Anyone Else

Jonathan Willis
March 27 2012 11:24PM

Jim Matheson’s Edmonton Journal piece on protecting Ryan Nugent-Hopkins today neatly encapsulated the feelings of many Oilers observers. Matheson, whose time as Oilers’ beat reporter goes back to the glory days of the club, referenced the old days when Wayne Gretzky had plenty of physical protection on the team.

My objection would be that no matter how hard a team tries, there’s simply no protecting star players from big hits any more.

Take the Boston Bruins as an example. The Bruins are typically regarded as one of, if not the, toughest team in the National Hockey League.

They also possessed a diminutive centre, one of the most gifted offensive players in the NHL. For five consecutive seasons Marc Savard eclipsed the point-per-game mark, twice getting within five points of 100. Then this happened:

Milan Lucic was playing on Savard’s wing at the time, clearly visible in the video. And, as Nation writer Cam Charron pointed out to me earlier today, the NHL’s official game-sheet has Zdeno Chara on the ice too. Bruins’ enforcer Shawn Thornton not only dressed; he’d been on the ice just 16 seconds earlier, lining up opposite Matt Cooke, who threw the hit that took Savard out.

Two of the NHL’s most intimidating players were on the ice when that hit took place. An enforcer had been out seconds earlier. Marc Savard shouldn’t have had to worry about a cheap hit from Matt Cooke, if players protecting each other worked.  Yet, the above actions transpired.

Of course, Savard came back. But then this happened:

That’s ex-teammate Matt Hunwick running Savard’s head into the glass as he finished his check. These are the 2010-11 Bruins, the team that goes on to win the Stanley Cup in the spring, and if possible they’re even tougher than they were when Cooke took Savard out. Once again, Zdeno Chara is on the ice. Nathan Horton is riding shotgun on Savard’s wing. Gregory Campbell had already fought in this game. Once again Shawn Thornton was dressed; according to the NHL game sheet he’d left the ice one second before Savard got nailed. Milan Lucic is also playing; he’d score twice in this game.

There’s no such thing as protection, for any player on any team in the modern NHL. The Oilers can bring in Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk and another dozen like them, and it won’t matter. Guys are still going to try and hit Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner.

For those players with predatory natures – like Matt Cooke – the fear of physical retribution isn’t enough to change their nature. Cooke has seen the worst outcome possible – he fought Steve Moore in the game where Moore’s neck was broken as the Canucks exacted vengeance for an earlier hit on Markus Naslund. He was still willing to take out Savard’s head, even with the meat in Boston’s lineup.  Even having seen first-hand careers end for lesser offenses.

For other players – guys like Matt Hunwick – their continued presence in the league depends on them finishing checks. If Hunwick has Savard in the corner and doesn’t hit him, what does his coach say? How does his coach react if thanks to easing up, Savard sneaks past and sets up a goal?

As Matheson notes in his piece, when Jared Boll ran Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ben Eager was right there. Darcy Hordichuk was dressed, and tried to do something about it afterward. Neither of those things prevented the hit on Nugent-Hopkins; neither of them is likely to prevent other hits on Nugent-Hopkins.

Fans can demand a physical response. They can demand nastier players. They can demand skill that can intimidate, players in the mold of Milan Lucic. In the end though, it’s not going to change the fact that guys like Jared Boll are going to take runs, or that guys like Mike Brown are going to bump shoulders along the boards. It’s just how things are.  Until the NHL really does turn into the ‘no hitting league’ it’s likely the way things will stay.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#2 TigerUnderGlass
March 28 2012, 12:56AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

It's funny, though - when Keith elbowed Sedin in the head, that's exactly what he was doing: policing. Keith made it clear that he wasn't willing to accept the hit Sedin had thrown earlier.

People get nostalgic about the 80's, but that's what players policing themselves looks like.

Not exactly. That's what players policing themselves with the instigator rule looks like.

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#3 Muji 狗
March 27 2012, 11:28PM
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Excellent post, Jonathan. Thank you.

*crosses fingers*

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#4 ouchmyballz
March 27 2012, 11:37PM
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Instigator penalty. Take that away, see what happens.

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#6 Lucas T
March 27 2012, 11:54PM
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I know it takes a certain mind set but I could wish RNH and the rest learn from Messier, Anderson or even Ryan Smith.

A few extra penalties early in a year could be a small price to pay if those predatory types are hesitating for a fraction of a second due to an established history of elbow or stick to the chops.

Smitty is particularly good at slipping a check and leaving his stick behind for someone to chew on. Not that he has not been hit hard a few times in his career.

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#7 Philbertus
March 27 2012, 11:54PM
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The problem is that the NHL has taken away the players ability to enforce the game themselves (the instigator) and at the same time the NHL refuses to protect the players. The league is in some limbo state where players cannot protect themselves and the league refuses to do it.

The instigator is clearly not coming back, so the league needs to step up! They must hit players with harsher penalties. They finally hit Matt Cooke with a serious suspension and he completely changed his game.

I highly doubt giving Keith a 5 game rest going into the playoffs is going to deter him from intentionally elbowing a player in the head again.

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#8 VK63
March 28 2012, 12:00AM
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JW.. you are probably correct..... and yet. Vancouver trades Hodgson for Kassian.

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#9 Bryzarro World
March 28 2012, 12:05AM
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Under Siege is awesome!

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#10 Lexi
March 28 2012, 12:06AM
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Another excellent article Jonathan.

I love that you use the Bruin example as I have heard a ton of people today say Taylor would never get hit if he played for the Bruins. I think some of the love for the Bruins style is the typical overreaction in the sports world to think however the most recent champ won is the only way to win. If you look at the recent Stanley Cup champs, the Bruins would be considered the first overly physical team to win since the 70s Flyers. Now it does look like most winners had lots of smart, hardworking guys who could be physical when needed in their depth guys.

I hope the NHL gets back to calling penalties more like they did right after the lockout, as that is the best hope for some protection for RNH et al. Then hopefully the Oilers can focus on finding value depth guys like Detroit did with Cleary and Maltby.

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#12 jeanshorts
March 28 2012, 01:11AM
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TigerUnderGlass wrote:

Not exactly. That's what players policing themselves with the instigator rule looks like.

I don't know, you can pick pretty much any highlight from the 70's or 80's at random and you'll see guys eating elbows and sticks with alarming frequency; and they're the ones throwing the check!

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#13 Clarence Oveur
March 28 2012, 02:02AM
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The only way to prevent (or counter) such hits is for the recipient to remain cognizant of who is on the ice and to brace himself accordingly: get the elbow/forearm or stick up in the face of the man delivering the hit.

It might result in a penalty (or a misconduct, as Smytty received earlier in the season), but ultimately it's probably worth it.

No one in their right mind goes for the big hit on a guy who knows how to defend himself. Borje Salming lasted during the 1970s for that very reason.

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#14 stevezie
March 28 2012, 02:14AM
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@Jonathan Willis

7) While having physical players of your own doesn't do much to prevent your guys getting hit, it doesn't mean there's no advantage to hitting their guys back. Raffi Torres didn't hit Michalek to protect Hemsky, he did it to hit Michalek.

Kassian's job isn't to neutralize Lucic, it's to match him.

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#15 Clarence Oveur
March 28 2012, 02:16AM
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stevezie wrote:

7) While having physical players of your own doesn't do much to prevent your guys getting hit, it doesn't mean there's no advantage to hitting their guys back. Raffi Torres didn't hit Michalek to protect Hemsky, he did it to hit Michalek.

Kassian's job isn't to neutralize Lucic, it's to match him.

Agreed.

At the very least you have to have players who are willing to respond by targeting the opposition's star players.

Ray Ferraro was an ardent supporter of this during his time as a Sportsnet commentator for the Oiler broadcasts, and I imagine that his mindset hasn't changed since then.

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#16 stevezie
March 28 2012, 02:19AM
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Great article.

I remember an interview with Souray where he said knowing that you might have to fight someone doesn't stop anyone from doing anything at this level, though it might slow them down. So well I'll admit that Seguin might not get hit quite as hard or often as our guys have been over the last few years, many people seem to be walking around with the idea that we can reduce hits on our stars to zero.

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#17 pelhem grenville
March 28 2012, 04:39AM
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...one word

disheartening

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#18 Petr's Jofa
March 28 2012, 06:26AM
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Is there a stat on which teams injure their oppponents the most? I'm interested to see which teams dish out injuries and which teams take them.

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#19 John Chambers
March 28 2012, 06:38AM
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Hordichuk obviously isn't an effective hockey player, but there's one game that stands out in my mind as a moderate reason to have a couple of goons on the active roster:

Last year the young Oilers were having a disaster of a road trip, getting creamed in Carolina and Detroit before swinging through Broadway to play the Rangers on a Sunday afternoon. In the 3rd period, down many many goals, Sean Avery sucker punched Ladi Smid, adding pain to the embarrassment of defeat. The Oilers had no response. As a team they were beaten so badly you can imagine the effects on team morale as they eventually struggled to a 62-point last place finish.

In some ways I respect Tambellini for saying "no more". There's no way we're going to risk having a Carcillo-like character take runs at our young players without fear of retribution. Does it always work? No. But if you've ever lined up to play a hockey game against a big, intimidating team, having an enforcer in your lineup helps you play with a greater degree of confidence. Truth.

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#20 justDOit
March 28 2012, 07:35AM
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One player from the old days comes to mind: Dino Ciccarelli. He was a small player who would carve you up for little or no reason, but give him a reason, and look out! And in doing so, he also 'carved' out some respect for himself.

Would that work in today's game?

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#21 Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"
March 28 2012, 07:52AM
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I have always loved a great hit, Always will. BUT it is so painful to watch a good player lay on the ice and the stretcher come out. It is also maybe even worse to see so many quality plays and hockey events not even happen due to such brain injures. Just think of all the man games last in the last few years from superstar players who got creamed. I will be honest this is the number one issue in the NHL. The loss of super-star player hurts the game and the quality of the on Ice product. Is their loss bigger than the loss of some of the hitting if we some how changed the rules to curb the hits at high speed? I really do not feel the NHL/Bettman/Owners take this seriously enough.

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#22 Big
March 28 2012, 08:23AM
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So the Oilers have a team full of players who won't stand up for themselves or their teammates and who wont initiate any kind of runs at other players. Sounds like 30/30/29 to me!!!

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#23 Dave
March 28 2012, 08:50AM
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I don't think this is a matter of fighting vs the Oilers grit players never target the other teams "stars". In the last several years we have constantly witnessed Hall, Hemsky, Gagner, RNH etc get hit (legally). Our response should be a Sedin, Nash, Kopitar etc getting targeted back (through another legal or agitating check)....I just don't think the Oilers have enough skill in their bottom half to do this.

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#24 Philbertus
March 28 2012, 08:52AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Agreed. But in the 80's Sedin is aware that is the response and so he doesn't hit Keith like that.

In today's NHL you can take a run at a guy and get away with it most of the time with little response from the team and little to no response from the league.

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#25 dawgbone
March 28 2012, 08:53AM
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John Chambers wrote:

Hordichuk obviously isn't an effective hockey player, but there's one game that stands out in my mind as a moderate reason to have a couple of goons on the active roster:

Last year the young Oilers were having a disaster of a road trip, getting creamed in Carolina and Detroit before swinging through Broadway to play the Rangers on a Sunday afternoon. In the 3rd period, down many many goals, Sean Avery sucker punched Ladi Smid, adding pain to the embarrassment of defeat. The Oilers had no response. As a team they were beaten so badly you can imagine the effects on team morale as they eventually struggled to a 62-point last place finish.

In some ways I respect Tambellini for saying "no more". There's no way we're going to risk having a Carcillo-like character take runs at our young players without fear of retribution. Does it always work? No. But if you've ever lined up to play a hockey game against a big, intimidating team, having an enforcer in your lineup helps you play with a greater degree of confidence. Truth.

What was the aftermath of that sucker punch again?

Jonathan's point is that no matter what you do to these guys after the fact isn't going to stop them before hand.

There is no fear of retribtion not because there is no possible retribution, but because that retribution is meaningless. I throw big hit and someone comes after me to fight me, it's pretty easy to avoid getting hurt (it's when you start trying to trade punches that you get in trouble in a hockey fight).

And perhaps that confidence you feel is what puts you in a situation to get laid out in the first place...

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#27 dawgbone
March 28 2012, 08:55AM
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Philbertus wrote:

Agreed. But in the 80's Sedin is aware that is the response and so he doesn't hit Keith like that.

In today's NHL you can take a run at a guy and get away with it most of the time with little response from the team and little to no response from the league.

So there were no big or dirty hits in the 80's?

People clamour for the good ol' days, but completely forget how dirty the hockey was in those days. Yeah, you elbowed a guy and you had to fight, but that sure as hell didn't curb elbowing.

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#29 jooks
March 28 2012, 09:11AM
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Players need to create a deterrent for themselves. Hall needed to get his elbow/forearm up and cream Sarich who wouldn't have expected it. It might cost Hall a couple of games but Sarich would think twice about the same hit. Do it a few times everyone stops assuming he's cannon fodder.

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#31 Rama Lama
March 28 2012, 09:23AM
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Jonathan you have identified two games where players either could not or did not prevent a check from happening.

The fact of the matter is you cannot measure the effectiveness and the prevention of cheap hits by having and enforcer on your team. We all intuitively know that big mean players rarely get hit, why? I suspect that somewhere in our DNA there is a gene that tells us not to provoke players that can beat the crap out of us!

Having big tough fighters may not be able to prevent hits from happening, but their presence is needed to control things should they get out of hand. Their presence alone is comforting to the smaller skilled players, and that should be the test, for their roles.

Just look at how Buffalo played against Boston when they were being physically man handled ? What if Buffalo had Lucic on their team.......how would they have responded? Once again these this are almost impossible to measure but the best measure should be how the smaller players feel about the enforcers.

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#32 John Chambers
March 28 2012, 09:37AM
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@dawgbone

I dunno, man. I played in a tournament this past weekend and we went up against a team of a-holes who would hack at you, give you the glove to the face, etc. It was sure nice having a bunch of towers on D who could throw it back, and with a few guys who know how to scrap, it was a feeling of comfort to know that we could throw it back if we had to (we ended up outshooting them something like 50-15, and took one penalty to their six).

All I'm saying is it can be demoralizing for a team to get pushed around all game, or all season long. In beer league, and in the NHL especially. I'm not saying it's a deterrent, so much as can imbue players with a sense of confidence needed to compete at the highest level.

If you know you're going to get goon'ed and have no answer for it, you're f'd.

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#33 jooks
March 28 2012, 09:40AM
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@JW

Maybe Hall doesn't fall if he focused on getting his elbow up instead of trying to play the puck haha.

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#34 Dman09
March 28 2012, 09:52AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Does Matt Cooke stop being Matt Cooke because he's afraid someone will hit Crosby?

Does Matt Hunwick stop doing his job because he's afraid of Matt Duchene getting hit?

My strong belief is that the answers to those questions are 'no' and 'no.'

No they throw out those hits before someone else does so that people will think twice about hitting crosby which obviously hasn't work, no matter which way you look at it its not working. Why is it that since the instigator rule and the Shanaban suspensions there still seems to be more people getting hurt.

Is getting into some fisticuffs, like in the 80's, doing more damage than the elbow on Sedin?

If I was a GM I would specifially sign a few guys to contracts much larger than they deserve and tell them I don't care if they get suspensions or extra penalties, thats what the extra money is for, if someone takes liberties with our players make them pay. I don't even care if their gloves are still on kick the Sh*t out of them. Their gloves will drop you wait and see. And if the NHL has a problem with that then I would tell them I'm just doing what I need to to properly protect my players because what the league is doing isn't making a difference.

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#35 knight
March 28 2012, 10:07AM
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I agree there will be guys like Cooke who run around no matter what. I'm sure though that there are a lot of players who think twice about running a Bruin and many who have probably "just missed" with a hit. The problem with the Oilers is it's just not the agitators who run our players, everyone seems to get tough when playing Edmonton.

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#36 knight
March 28 2012, 10:13AM
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Thornton fought Cooke the second minute into the next game.

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#37 VK63
March 28 2012, 10:18AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Well. Nicely posed rationalization from the canucks perspective.

My observations are much more casual

two watershed games have been played by the canucks this year, the game versus Boston and the game that ended the wings home winning streak.

A cherry picked analysis would hazard that Hodgson scores some rather big goals, in sheltered minutes, against well coached teams, with less poor opponents to score them against. (arguably)

If i was to contest any of your points I would choose the AHL one as Hodgsons recovery from major back issues most certainly was a factor although statistically it cannot be quantized.

My best guess. The canucks are going to regret this trade. But hey..... f**k, fight or hold the light, at least they did something.

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#38 nathan
March 28 2012, 10:22AM
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Irrestible force meet immovable object. Teammates can't protect players. Concussion monitoring will increase. No one wants speed removed. No one wants no-contact shinny.

Not quite Minority Report, but eventually the folks in the Toronto control room will get real time impact data from helmets. By then high speed difference impacts will evolve from no penalty to two digit game suspensions.

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#39 Bucknuck
March 28 2012, 10:26AM
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Yeah, well the Nuge is just going to have to get bigger and stronger and faster, then.

Nice little video on #nugeforcalder

http://youtu.be/na8aLoZEF_k

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#40 Archie Bunker
March 28 2012, 10:36AM
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In contact sports the Big Hit is a commodity rewarded with admiration, praise or other. (aka NO Saints bounty program) This culture incubates at the Pee Wee level and proliferates as the game and stakes get higher. Coaches reward it; fans and teammates love it. Skilled guys don’t need this aspect but middle and lower pack guys are doing whatever it takes to keep those million dollar contracts intact. As long as the rewards exist the bullies (new label – impact player) are all too willing to inflict punishment or put another player’s career at risk. The players aren’t in a union....together. They are independent contractors. Otherwise they would have greater respect and take better care of each other. Or maybe I’m just delusional.

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#41 dawgbone
March 28 2012, 10:43AM
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John Chambers wrote:

I dunno, man. I played in a tournament this past weekend and we went up against a team of a-holes who would hack at you, give you the glove to the face, etc. It was sure nice having a bunch of towers on D who could throw it back, and with a few guys who know how to scrap, it was a feeling of comfort to know that we could throw it back if we had to (we ended up outshooting them something like 50-15, and took one penalty to their six).

All I'm saying is it can be demoralizing for a team to get pushed around all game, or all season long. In beer league, and in the NHL especially. I'm not saying it's a deterrent, so much as can imbue players with a sense of confidence needed to compete at the highest level.

If you know you're going to get goon'ed and have no answer for it, you're f'd.

There's also a difference between a mens league tournament and pro hockey.

Yeah, there are guys who play mens league who act like jerks/play dirty but tone it down when someone can give it just as good or better than they can. That has more to do with the fact that there is little to gain by continuing on. Winning the tournament isn't worth it if you can't go to work for the next week because you got your teeth punched in.

In pro hockey, you being employed may be based on the fact that you took those punches and kept playing a physical game.

As for the confidence issue, I think it's overblown to be honest. Yes I understand how demoralizing it is to be pounded on by a bigger stronger team all game, but you can't combat that by adding 5 minute per night goons.

The Bruins are going to try and overpower their opposition physically (both clean and dirty). Dressing a 4th line of Hordichuk, Eager and Smac isn't going to stop them from playing that game. For the 18 minutes Hall is on the ice vs them, he's going to be hit at every opportunity, that's just how they will play.

It filters down from there. Cal Clutterbuck hits people, that's his thing. He hits players on every team. He'll hit Oilers.

Cory Sarich hits people. He saw an opportunity to hit Hall. He's not sitting there worrying whether the Oilers have someone who will retaliate because he'd throw that hit on anyone in that same situation.

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#42 vetinari
March 28 2012, 10:46AM
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Cheap shots have always been part of the game (hello, Claude Lemeiux, Ulf Samuelsson and 1990's hockey!).

The only way to get rid of head shots is to either suspend the offending player for a significant duration (say, 10 games for a first time offender and doubling the suspension each and every time after that) or make it possible for opposing teams to submit video to the league demonstrating head shot infractions, regardless of whether a penalty was assessed or not on a play, and allow the league to suspend players accordingly based on these reviews.

If a player accumulates enough suspensions, or significanlty injures or endangers another player, he's should be out of the league for a year or more. And to make the team accountable, let his salary count against the cap while he is gone-- that will make teams accountable.

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#43 John Chambers
March 28 2012, 11:30AM
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@dawgbone

Right. All I'm saying is that having something of an arsenal in your back pocket can be comforting - probably moreso for RNH and Hall than it is for beer leaguers like me.

That game against the Rangers last year was a disaster. Avery was able to run amok, and we had nobody who could stick up for the team, whether in the moment or from the next puck drop onwards. I'm not saying that Darcy Hordichuk is the answer, all I'm saying is that size and trunculence isn't inconsequencial - when paired with skill they make for more confident, more competent hockey players through 82 games and playoffs.

You don't need the ability to kick someone's ass so much as you need to be comfortable in the fact that you won't get your ass kicked.

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#44 TigerUnderGlass
March 28 2012, 11:48AM
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jeanshorts wrote:

I don't know, you can pick pretty much any highlight from the 70's or 80's at random and you'll see guys eating elbows and sticks with alarming frequency; and they're the ones throwing the check!

I agree with this. However the difference is that without the instigator there was another option. If you ran my teammate I could grab you and punch you in the face a few times. What are the options now?

Cheap shots have always been around and will never go away, but the instigator rules means that the best option a team has is to respond with an equally cheap shot.

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#45 BeeGee
March 28 2012, 12:02PM
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@JW

While you can never get rid of all cheap shots or hits on your star players, I do think that when the other team knows that there will be repurcussions if they hit our star player, then it will become less likely that your star player will get hit. So, you can point to Savard getting hit while he played for the Bruins, but I think a more accurate picture would be to compare how often that happens to the Bruins vs. how often that happens to soft teams (like the Oilers). I suspect that it happens with much more frequency to the Oilers than it does to the Bruins.

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#46 Bill
March 28 2012, 12:17PM
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Guys who deliver these cheap shots and attempts to injure won't change if someone fights them or tries to fight them. Taking direct retribution against Cooke or Regehr or Sarich won't work. What teams like the Oilers have to do is take direct retribution against the other team's skilled players.

If you don't like stiffs like Cory Sarich coming in like a blur in a deliberate attempt to erase Taylor Hall, you react not by grabbing Sarich....you react by sending Iginla or Tanguay to the infirmary.

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#47 Pucker
March 28 2012, 12:26PM
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Very good article. Thought provoking. I think Duncan Keith has an answer. Ryan Smyth has an answer and I think it would be better for the smaller Ebs and RNH if they had an answer playing on their line. . . . I'm sure Hall will find the answer.

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#48 Rogue
March 28 2012, 12:48PM
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Jonathan:

I get what you are saying. I think most do. But part of the problem has been this no contact policy the Oil have had over previous years. As a forward chasing the puck in the Oiler zone,they have had extra time and little fear of getting creamed into the boards. Same at the other end regarding the dmen. Oil being physical? Never. You can be a whole lot braver and have more time playing against Edmonton. Deterrent comes from having a physical team that can step up and make a difference when they have too. This team needs 3 players like this, one for each line. Too soft and little threat of anyone taking justice into their own hands.

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#49 etownman
March 28 2012, 12:50PM
Trash it!
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trashes
Cheers
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cheers
Jonathan Willis wrote:

Does Matt Cooke stop being Matt Cooke because he's afraid someone will hit Crosby?

Does Matt Hunwick stop doing his job because he's afraid of Matt Duchene getting hit?

My strong belief is that the answers to those questions are 'no' and 'no.'

Jonathan, Matt Cooke would have had to face somebody like Dave Semenko back in the 80's when there was no instigator rule! These are the guys now that give the game a bad vibe, the cheapshot artists that do their thing & then refuse to back it up because they are protected. The competitive instincts of a Duncan Keith with a dirty hit on Sedin is different in my eyes because what happened before that dirty hit! Hockey is fast, aggressive & very competitive so I don't think we'll ever fully take some of those circumstances or instances out of the game! Removing the instigator rule will remove the predatory players like Matt Cooke though because they will have nowhere to hide!

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