Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 03/18/07 at 12:09 PM ET
By George James Malik:
When Wayne Gretzky speaks, the hockey world listens. Gretzky’s impassioned plea to the NHL’s referees (and front office), demanding more accountability for the vicious and violent hits that have become commonplace in the 2006-2007 season, was completely justified. Whether you believe that Craig Janssen, Chris Neil, and Ryan Hollweg were “finishing their checks” or wantonly attempting to injure their opponents, the resulting body count can’t be denied. In the case of Chris Simon, an uncalled boarding penalty resulted in the ugliest incident in NHL history since Todd Bertuzzi’s attack on Steve Moore.
Referees seem to refuse to call more than one set of penalties in our post-lockout NHL, and it’s bafflingly frustrating to see players regularly line up their opponents, cruise in, and pop their hard-plastic-covered shoulders up as they intentionally direct their momentum and body mass upward instead of outward, making contact with chins, temples, and the Reebok logo on the backs of NHL jerseys instead of chests, arms, or team crests. Allowing “battles” for the puck has devolved into a tacit approval of anything that isn’t interference.
The latter half of Gretzky’s statements, however, have been pounced upon by he NHL’s commentators:
“In fairness to the referees, they’re told to call the hooking and holding,’’ Gretzky said. “It’s tough on them. They’re being mandated, ‘You need to call this and you’ve got to stay on it.’
“But to me, Mario Lemieux, and Bobby Orr and Guy Lafleur fought through every hook.’‘
Saturday night on the CBC, those who eschew Ron MacLean’s comments about “chintzy” penalties are having a, “See, Gretzky says I’m right about these crap hooking and holding penalties!” party, and it’s no stretch to suggest that the media will stir up an anti-interference frenzy by the middle of next week.
I don’t believe the hype.
Gretzky seems to have forgotten Mario Lemieux’s statements suggesting that he retired in large part because he was sick and tired of battling through clutching, grabbing, and wrestling on ice. He’s also ignored Jean Beliveau’s suggestion that the crackdown on obstruction and interference restored the spirit of “Old Time Hockey” in reestablishing an old adage; the hockey stick is meant for playing the puck, not hooking, holding, or slashing your opponent.
The crackdown has restored excitement to a game that devolved into a combination of rugby, football, and wrestling on ice before the lockout, a game where you could effectively close off the slot from opposing players by placing five players in the slot and grabbing anyone who dared to enter no-man’s land. The Stanley Cup was decided between a team that hooked and held religiously and a free-flowing team that adapted its opponents’ tactics to survive.
Despite the “chitnzy” penalties when a player simply places his parallel-to-the-ice stick blade on an opponent’s hand or stick without actually committing an infraction, or puts his hand upon an opponent without grabbing hold, players have adjusted to using body position and skating to force their opponents wide. The trap’s returned, with shot-blocking a collapsing defence replacing the hooks, holds, and “seal-the-fore-checker” plays that reduced the 50-goal, 100+-point seasons of elite players to an output of, at best, a point per game.
A crackdown on hits that are express an intent to injure will not turn the game into a no-hitter. Enforcers and physical players have adapted in leagues which prohibit hits to the head and actively police hits from behind. Players can still physically punish one another in ways that would make Don Cherry proud while both prohibiting interference and actively deterring intent-to-injure hits.
Gretzky’s right in suggesting that there are far too many uncalled hits that result in unnecessary injuries. His comments regarding interference calls, and the suggestion that referees must let some penalties go to crack down on others is shortsighted, and the media’s frustration with interference penalties does not take the sentiments of NHL fans, nor the bang they deserve for their entertainment dollar, into account.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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