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Dazed and Confused

“I’m confused.” 

That was the reaction of Owen Sound Attack head coach Greg Ireland after gritty forward Mike Halmo was suspended ten games for a massive open-ice hit on Russian sniper Nail Yakupov, the projected number one pick in this summer’s NHL draft.

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the hit.  Some people think Halmo led with his elbow, left his feet, and targeted the head of a vulnerable player.  Others feel Yakupov leaned into the hit after cutting to the middle of the ice, and that Halmo simply braced himself for contact because he had no time to adjust his path once he committed to the check.

Not surprisingly, Owen Sound general manager Dale DeGray holds the latter opinion:

“The league has taken a stand that Mike took advantage of the player. I don’t see that… I’m at the OHL Cup (midget tournament) and I don’t know how many hockey people I’ve talked to about it.  I don’t imagine (they’re) all trying to make me feel good and I have not had one person tell me that it was a suspendible hit.  Some have said that it was a marginal penalty.”

The fact that Greg Ireland and everyone Dale DeGray has spoken with over the past week can’t figure out why Mike Halmo was suspended speaks volumes about the confusion that continues to plague the hockey world regarding what constitutes a legal bodycheck.  And unlike the NHL, hits to the head have been illegal in the Ontario Hockey League for many years, yet players have still been unable to completely adjust to the new standard. 

Canadian sportswriter Dave Pollard explains the conundrum:

Yakupov was reaching for the puck and put himself in an incredibly vulnerable position in an area of the ice where the alarm in his head should have been screaming “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!!”

I mean, geez, what the heck is Halmo supposed to do in this case? Just blow by Yakupov, one of the most dangerous junior aged scorers in the world? If he does that, he might be glued to the bench for the rest of the game. In the OHL or, if he ever gets that far, the NHL, he needs to finish his check to be effective and, for my money, that’s exactly what he did.

Anyone who believes Mike Halmo is a wild gunslinger who was trying to make a statement by decapitating the best junior hockey player in Canada is grasping at straws.  Halmo had nothing to gain that night, having been signed by the New York Islanders a few days prior.  It’s also worth noting that while Halmo leads his team in penalty minutes, he’s also tops on the roster in goals and points. 

On top of that, the overage forward was gearing up for his final playoff appearance with Owen Sound, where he’s spent his entire junior career.  Having been suspended in the past for questionable hits, there’s no way Halmo would’ve deliberately taken a run at Nail Yakupov, knowing full well that a lengthy suspension would likely put an early end to his junior career. 

While he believes the hit was worthy of a suspension, columnist Jim Neveau says Yakupov deserves as much blame as Halmo:

Yakupov did indeed put himself in a prone position. Even though Halmo still put a dangerous and illegal hit on him, Nail has to be more aware of his surroundings when he is on the ice. He held onto the puck for way too long, tried skating across the entire offensive zone, and was looking for an oncoming teammate to pass to instead of looking at the ice ahead of him, which is where Halmo happened to be lying in wait.

All of these actions may be permissible and okay to do in junior hockey, but if Yakupov tries to pull any of those things in an NHL game, he will be absolutely flattened by an opposing player.

Actually, as the video clearly indicates, Yakupov is just as likely to be flattened by a junior counterpart as he is by an NHL opponent.  Anytime a puck carrier cuts to the middle of the ice with his head down, he should expect to be leveled. 

Or should he?

When questioned by reporters about the Halmo hit, Owen Sound head coach Greg Ireland posed a critical question.  He wanted to know whether he should teach his players in the future to allow a winger with a head of steam to waltz into the slot unmolested, and to avoid making any kind of body contact at all, for fear of striking the attacking player in the head. 

It’s quite obvious the game is treading a dangerous line when coaches are wondering if they need to train defenders to jump out of the way when a rushing forward makes a quick pivot toward the middle.  If a defender is not going to be allowed to administer a bodycheck in that situation because players who make quick transitions with the puck often abruptly put their heads down, then the physicality and integrity of the game will suffer greatly. 

Neveau’s argument falls short because he indicts both players for their roles in the collision.  In one breath, he tees off on Halmo for plowing into his opponent.  At the same time, he criticizes Yakupov for putting himself in a position to be knocked into next week.  Clearly, that position is contradictory.  Either Halmo made a poor judgement and deserves the suspension, or Yakupov made a poor judgment and deserves the hit. 

Many hockey fans would agree that Yakupov made a mistake by cutting into the slot with his head down.  The problem is, if players like Mike Halmo aren’t allowed to finish their checks on skaters who make such careless plays, there will no longer be a physical consequence to what has traditionally been considered a hockey no-no.  Wingers will be able to charge the middle of the ice without fear of being touched. 

In laying out its decision to suspend him, the OHL refused to acknowledge what recourse Halmo had on the play.  That’s why Greg Ireland is confused.  He knows his player had no choice but to brace himself for a collision that was virtually impossible to avoid.  What sticks in Ireland’s craw is the fact the OHL, in placing the onus entirely on Halmo, has made it clear that it’s perfectly okay for the puck carrier to skate around the ice with his head buried.  That player is no longer fair game. 

Interestingly enough, league officials initially told Dale DeGray they thought the Halmo hit was clean.  A cynic can’t help but wonder if Yakupov’s status as a top prospect played a role in changing that stance.  Regardless, it’s disconcerting to know that even OHL disciplinarians weren’t quite sure what to make of the situation.  It took the league an entire week to decide how long to suspend Halmo, a process that usually takes a few days, at best. 

Fans of rough and tumble hockey have been on edge for the past year and a half, wondering which direction the sport is headed.  In a day and age where all head shots are illegal (even those initiated by the puck carrier), questions about what place hitting has in the game have become more frequent.  Unfortunately, the Mike Halmo suspension generates more questions than answers.

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Comments

CaptainDennisPolonich's avatar

I have no idea if that hit should have resulted in a suspension. I do know that in the 40 years I’ve been watching hockey, every facet of the game has changed. When a hit like this occurred in the 1970’s, the two players involved would have been significantly smaller, they would have been moving at significantly slower speeds, and they would not have been wearing any hard shell body armour. The weight and velocity changes have dramatically increased the amount of force received in an open ice hit. The hard shell shoulder pads just make it even worse. At least hard shell elbow pads have been banned.

One thing that has not changed in the last 40 years is how players are taught to play the game. More than the suspension, I think that is where the discussion needs to go. Players from the earliest level to the NHL need to be taught that just because they can launch a player into next week, doesn’t mean they should. That, unlike the NFL’s Saints, the goal is to separate the puck from the player, not the player from his head.

The players and equipment have changed so much over the past 40 years that it is just not safe to play the game the same way it was played in the past.

Posted by CaptainDennisPolonich from The Land of Fake Boobs and Real Nuts on 03/19/12 at 01:39 PM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.