Shanahan's Implicit Message: Become a Better Hitter

NEW YORK NY - JANUARY 13: Keith Ballard #4 of the Vancouver Canucks hip checks Ruslan Fedotenko #19 of the New York Rangers during the game at Madison Square Garden on January 13 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)

Now I don't expect Brendan Shanahan to say this; he has a history of being a pretty hard-nosed player himself, so I suspect any allusions he might make to not targeting the head or not hitting high would be viewed as hypocritical.  Regardless, there was a key moment in his statement regarding the Brad Boyes suspension Sunday (bold and italics are my own):

While the play develops quickly, Colborne makes no sudden movements just prior to, or simultaneous with, the hit; placing the onus on Boyes not to hit him in the head.  While I believe Boyes' assertion that he did not intentionally target the head, this is a reckless hit and is now illegal.

In other words, as the hitter, you need to be responsible for the direction of your hit.  I think there's a hidden message to NHL players, too: become better hitters.  Let me explain...

When I was growing up, I learned a lot about physics without really knowing it.  As a smaller defenceman, I had a deep admiration for the hip check, not only for the ability to flip opponents but because of how effectively it stopped even the largest players.  Some of the skill in doing the hip check is having "correct" skating posture (low, almost in a seated position), and driving your center of gravity, or hip, just below theirs (roughly the midway point between the knees and hips).  Rugby players could tell you all about the veracity of that approach, though they drive with their shoulder instead.

The emphasis is on taking your strongest balance point against their more-upright posture and either flipping them, knocking them backwards, or stopping them in their tracks.  Sometimes in youth hockey we had a drill where you played tag with your butt, with the intention on working on staying low and pushing through that critical, powerful balance point.

At some step of the way, that approach lost its appeal; it wasn't as flashy as the guys who punched forward, trying to launch with their elbows and shoulders, looking to knock their man out.  And that's what it was, too: we wanted to waste that fucker.  I'll admit, there were times when I hit high, but outside of possibly knocking the guy out it was not particularly effective, often put me out of position, and didn't help when it came to pinning a player along the boards.  When I started to referee hockey games, I'd see the same thing everywhere, with the same high hitting espoused and few players looking to drive through their hip.  Eventually, USA Hockey added a penalty for that kind of hit, a sort of illegal-hands-to-the-face call.

I personally never got a shot at the higher levels of hockey (undersized high school defencemen have to be Bobby Orr to even get a look in the States), but my focus on hitting through my hips made that my primary instinct throughout high school and helped me play bigger than my size.  I wish I could have been big enough to use it at the professional level; it certainly worked for a guy like Rob Blake.  He was great for literally turning his ass into the player, and when he used that lower point of contact he delivered possibly the biggest hits I've ever seen.  Have a look at some of these.  Notice the hits on Jochen Hecht and Martin Straka in particular.

I've had a chance to sort of revive this approach to hitting in roller derby, as it's illegal to hit with your arms and to hit your opponent above the shoulders.  The most effective way to hit in derby is use the same kind of hit as a hip check; if you do it right, you can even incorporate a "lift" into the hit which will completely take the player out of control.

It is too rare to see an NHL player take that kind of approach to hitting.  NHLers have the same habit I was noticing in my teammates, the desire to blast someone through the shoulders and elbows, making the point of contact far removed from the targeted player's balance point.  Whomever their coaches have been, they've not spent enough time addressing the fact that their players are sacrificing a large amount of power and control to do that.  Hell, just show some videos of Keith Ballard's hip checks, and you can see what kind of power a smaller hitter can generate from getting lower and hitting his or her opponent's center of gravity.  Ballard as an example also brings up an important couple points: some contemporary players do keep low in their hits, and a lot of them are defencemen.

Brendan Shanahan said (of Brad Boyes) that the onus is on the player to not hit their opponent in the head.  The onus is also on NHLers, and players at every level, to become better, lower hitters.  By being aware of their target and their approach,  there's no reason players can't reduce the number of head hits in the future.

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