by Joe Tasca on 03/29/12 at 09:00 AM ET
As April approaches, the NFL is still licking its wounds over a disgraceful bounty scandal, in which defensive players for the New Orleans Saints were paid cash bonuses for injuring opponents. The revelations have spawned further investigations to determine whether other teams may have offered defenders financial incentives for administering knockout blows.
It’s not particularly shocking to learn about pro football players trying to hurt each other. The fact that a defensive player often lunges at a wide receiver like a guided missile, as opposed to remaining grounded and trying to make a standard arm tackle, indicates there are times when a linebacker has little regard for the welfare of his intended target.
Indeed, the prospect of offering a monetary reward for such savagery is a disturbing thought. But an argument can be made that the culture of football encourages defenders to annihilate offensive players because wearing down the opponent has long been considered part of the game. The objective has always been to lay a beating on the star quarterback so he’ll be rendered ineffective, or better yet, unable to play.
With this in mind, it’s tempting to wonder if the Saints franchise would’ve been penalized if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams admitted encouraging his players to “hit to hurt” without the benefit of a hefty payoff. In other words, would the Saints be considered a disgrace if the club was found guilty of deliberately trying to send opponents off the field on a stretcher, not for financial reasons, but because doing so would help them gain a competitive advantage?
The hockey world has changed dramatically since Sidney Crosby was knocked silly by David Steckel during last year’s outdoor game. Nobody raised much of a fuss after the hit, as Crosby was considered the unfortunate victim of one of hundreds of collisions that occur during the course of a game. Considering the extent of Sid’s injury, it’s reasonable to say the Stanley Cup hopes of the Pittsburgh Penguins died that day.
While Steckel claimed the hit was purely accidental, it’s been noted that he, after striking Crosby in the head while skating up ice, failed to turn around to see who he’d bumped into immediately following the collision. It seems awfully hard to believe a player could be so focused on the play as to completely ignore a player he just plowed through in mid-stride. For all he knew, that player could’ve been a teammate.
Steckel’s curious reaction has led some to believe he purposefully conked Crosby, and simply tried to make the contact look accidental to avoid being suspended. If that was his intention, Steckel pulled if off with masterful results. Not only did he avoid a league-imposed ban, but he greatly impaired the offensive attack of one of his team’s primary conference rivals for the rest of the season (and beyond).
It’s likely nobody will ever know for sure whether David Steckel intended to take Sidney Crosby’s head off. It’s difficult to take him at his word because admitting guilt would’ve cost Steckel a number of games, not to mention a good chunk of change. But assuming for a moment that Steckel knew what he was doing, it’s interesting to consider whether what he did was wrong in a sport in which physical health and endurance plays a crucial role in the outcome.
The answer to this question isn’t as obvious as it seems. Even though general managers, coaches, and players all say the right things about how important he is to the sport, there isn’t a single team in the Eastern Conference that would mind if Sidney Crosby watched playoff games from the press box this spring. The Boston Bruins certainly weren’t disappointed about missing out on the Crosby Show en route to the Cup final last year.
Almost every hockey fan would agree there’s nothing inherently wrong with working Sidney Crosby over during the course of a game (or series), banging him around and roughing him up at every opportunity, in hopes of wearing him down over time. If the onslaught of physical contact results in a season-ending injury for Crosby, that’s a tough break for the Penguins. Their loss is every other team’s gain.
In years past, most of the trademark wear-down tactics consisted of two-handed cross-checks and vicious slashes. Those old standards have been all but eliminated in today’s game, and players have had to adjust accordingly. They’ve learned to hit opponents where it really hurts (the head), and they’ve trained themselves to do so in a way that makes a deliberate attack often appear accidental.
In all likelihood, the Steckel hit was nothing more than an attempt to ring Crosby’s bell. It’s doubtful Steckel was trying to put his opponent on the shelf for a year and a half. But even so, if similar hits are deemed accidental by the league, but in fact, are not, then players won’t think twice about “accidentally” colliding with star forwards in the future. To boot, players who have a score to settle with an opponent will try to time their retaliatory response in a manner that appears unintended to avoid supplemental discipline.
The Duncan Keith elbow on Daniel Sedin is a perfect example. And while Keith didn’t completely avoid the long arm of the law, it’s quite obvious that a five game suspension for such a brutal attack is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. The puck was nowhere near Sedin, yet Keith manages to get away with a relatively short ban for concussing one of the elite players in the game with a flagrant shot to the chops.
Keith’s light sentence is mind-boggling considering his foul was clearly in response to a hit he received from Sedin moments earlier. Writers like Tom Benjamin seem to believe the Chicago defenseman was given preferential treatment because he’s also a star player. If that’s the case, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Last year, Zdeno Chara cold-cocked Montreal forward Max Pacioretty after “accidentally” checking him into a glass stanchion. The two players had a running feud going ever since Pacioretty shoved Chara after scoring an overtime winner earlier in the season. Yet, despite the context of the hit, the NHL chose not to suspend Chara, claiming he clearly had no intentions of hurting Pacioretty.
One can’t help but wonder if the hulking Bruin defenseman would’ve made that same hit if it were his brother coming down the wing. Would Duncan Keith have “finished his check” on an ex-teammate like he did on Daniel Sedin? Does David Steckel run an opponent who’s a good friend the way he ran Sidney Crosby?
By not throwing the book at these players, the league has indicated that it’s okay to attempt to (and successfully) injure an opponent, as long as the perpetrator masks his true intentions to the best of his ability. It’s not a particularly daunting task for athletes who’ve been skating since the age of three. Hockey is an incredibly fast game, and it’s very easy to plead innocent when things happen in a split-second.
As much as the NHL has tried to eliminate gratuitous violence from the game, it still exists, even if it’s not as prevalent or even as obvious as it was many years ago. Sucker-punches are easily done away with, but the occasional drive-by elbow smash is a different matter entirely. And although hockey players don’t have financial incentives for levying an “accidental” head shot, a well-timed blow to the right player could serve the dual purpose of sending a message, while also increasing a team’s chances of success.
In the meantime, guys like Crosby, Pacioretty, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and countless others could be one accidental hit away from retirement.
All’s fair in love and sport.
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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.