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On Hits, Toughness, and Warriors

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Hockey is a rough sport. A contact sport where collisions are commonplace and intentional ones are a deeply-ingrained and well-revered component. But perhaps we should re-examine the place hits have in the game of hockey and the pedestal we place them on. Controversial viewpoint incoming. I'm taking physical hockey as a whole to task.

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

How many times have you heard a coach or a player talking to the media about how the team didn't play physically enough? Needs to take the body more? Set the tone, ratchet up the intensity? Et cetera? In my humble opinion, this is very wrong. Let's tackle what makes big hitting a liability. We'll look at all the angles.

We need to play more physical

A few games ago, against Colorado, Dustin Byfuglien was given mad props by the media for being a one-man wrecking ball. I happened to miss the game, but recaps and .GIFs paid huge attention to how Buff was delivering a lot of hits. This was seen as a good thing. Except it's probably not that effectual. I don't claim to be a numbers guy, but one thing I think I have a handle on is this very site's examination of the correlation between hits and wins. Specifically, teams aren't winning on the back of physical play. That isn't to say they are winning because they're hitting less, but stronger teams can't  run around throwing hits because they have the puck more often than they don't. One thing I don't recall is anything pointing out how the larger hit numbers didn't help puck possession for weaker teams. Because it doesn't. Take statistics out of the equation and watch a game like a casual fan. An idea seems to be that hits are a major help because generally a puck carrier getting hit loses the puck. But how many times have you seen a player deliver a hit and topple over as well while the puck slides indiscriminately towards some stick, equally likely to be a teammate or opponent, based entirely on who was in the right place at the right time? Visual anecdotal evidence and statistical backing suggesting hits don't have as great an impact as many would say. And yet, nearly every team has at least one player on the roster who can't score or drive possession, because he hits.

Make him look over his shoulder

I'm not in the habit of listening to post-game interviews, for any team, so I'm not sure how much anyone says this plays into it, but you'd agree with me that hitting is supposed to have a psychological aspect to it, no? Deliver a bone-crunching hit now so that the guy taking it will be a little more hesitant in their play for fear of additional hits? A number of teams and players have good underlying stats, Corsi, zone entries, etc.. Last week's series on fighting delved in to just how ineffective the threat of a fight is as a deterrent, given the fact that players have "had to" make good on the threat. During the game against the Islanders on Tuesday, Dustin Byfuglien gave Cal Clutterbuck a shove in retaliation for a knee-on-knee against Mark Scheifele. Did it stop Clutterbuck from kneeing Scheifele? Nope. Extending that logic to the basic hard body check and you get the same thing. Playmakers, danglers, and snipers continue to make plays, dangle, and snipe, regardless of how many hits they take. It happens to be a factor in why they made the NHL rather than wash out.

Gladiators On Ice

This isn't just about refuting the supposed benefits of hitting. It's also about highlighting the straight-up bad. Namely, penalties and suspensions. Buff got praise for his Miley Cyrus impersonation against the Avs, but he took a two-minute minor for roughing. He probably got praise for coming to the defence of Scheifele against Clutterbuck, but he got two minutes for unsportsmanlike on that move. I agree with the sentiment behind the move, sticking up for a defenceless teammate, but I don't agree with the move. It doesn't stop anything, and only exposes the person doing it to a penalty. Winnipeg isn't the only place this is happening. Not only did NHL villain du jour John Scott receive a five-minute penalty for his fight with Tim Jackman on Sunday, but he left the bench to do so, and got a two-game suspension for it. And what about David Clarkson during the 2013/14 preseason, when he jumped into the fray to protect Darth Kessel against Scott and got dealt ten games? Or the gigantic mess of PIMs handed out during that one game between Vancouver and Calgary in January? And what about injuries? Back in October 2013, Jacob Trouba attempted to deal a hit on Jordan Leopold and ended up getting a face full of board and a neck injury that kept him out for 17 games. On Sunday, Chris Kreider and John Moore delivered bad hits to Jonas Brodin and Erik Haula, a dangerous hit into the boards and an illegal check to the head, respectively. Kreider got off without so much as a hearing, while Moore got a five game suspension. During 2011/12, the Rangers' Michael Sauer took a perfectly clean hit from Dion Phaneuf. He has been out since then with concussion symptoms. This raises three questions for me. What's the line between clean and dirty? Is one person's dirty another person's borderline? If it causes injury, should it even matter whether it was clean?

Tying it all together

Even for people who stand against the prevalence of fisticuffs in hockey, there is a warrior mentality in the sport that coaches, fans, and players all agree on. It's a contact sport after all, hits are going to happen, so as long as people keep it clean, quit complaining. Except hitting, in general, is an unreliable strategy that, by and large, doesn't affect a game. Not even supposed psychological effects that should subtly affect in-game effects do much. There's a risk of penalty and suspension for a hit. regardless of whether the hit was clean or dirty, whether it caused injury, or whether injury was an intention. Injury is a risk for both the victim and perpetrator. In all, it seems like it's not really worth it for all the risk and lack of reward. I'm not suggesting a complete abolishment of hitting. Hockey, especially the North American game, is one of gigantic speed demons barreling up and down a comparatively cramped sheet of ice. Collisions are inevitable, so if they were to be banned entirely, everyone and their mother would be out with a suspension. But people should really consider whether hockey is a contact sport like football, where physical contact is an unavoidable essential on both offence and defence, or more in the vein of basketball or soccer, where contact is an inevitability based on how the game is played, but certainly something a game-long/season-long strategy can survive without. It's a good tactic, but it should be more of a last resort, just inside the borderline between necessary and unnecessary. There's just too much that can go wrong with too little reward. As someone who much prefers high-scoring hockey, I'd support a change in attitude.