I begin this week with a disclaimer of sorts--for again focusing on a hit and its repercussions. It’s a recurring theme I’d truly like to get away from. But how to do so when the controversial hits keep coming?
This time around it’s the one that was recently delivered by Capitals rookie Tom Gilbert on Flyers forward Brayden Schenn.
When I first saw it, my immediate reaction was that it had to be a suspension, for at least what was a reckless and irresponsible charge that led to a scary collision.
But then I watched Brendan Shanahan’s video, which explained in excruciating (that’s a complimentary adjective, by the way) detail why Wilson wouldn’t be fined or suspended for the hit. Shanny delivered an “inside hockey” dissertation on the art of forechecking, showing that even though Wilson skated from his bench directly at Schenn with what seemed to be the sole purpose of hitting him, most of the distance was covered in what Shanahan described as “typical forechecking fashion.”
As for the hit itself, Shanahan not only showed that it was shoulder to shoulder, but he gave kudos to Gilbert for staying low as it was delivered. And he also showed that Schenn not only saw Wilson coming, but instead of turning to his right and preparing to receive the check, Schenn turned the opposite way, so his back was to Gilbert when the hit occurred. In doing this, Shanahan concluded, Schenn “actually contributes to making this hit worse.”
I get it. And I agree with Shanahan’s ruling. But here’s the thing: Many of the hits that are being delivered in today’s game seem to be intended to accomplish much more than always was their intended purpose, which is to separate man from puck. Today’s hits seem to have a more insidious purpose, which is to separate players from their senses, if not their careers.
Tom Gilbert’s hit is only the latest example.
And while it’s certainly Brendan Shanahan’s current responsibility to dissect these hits and determine what was the intention and the fault in each one, ultimately this is something that has to be determined by each player, which is where the whole question of responsibility and mutual respect comes into play. More on that in a bit.
All of which leads to a recent column by Larry Brooks of the New York Post, calling for a second “Shanahan Summit,” an updated version of the 2004 meeting of players, coaches, owners, GM’s and various media and support personnel. It was organized and overseen by Shanny, then a veteran player in the final stages of his brilliant Hall of Fame career, locked out and trying to figure out how to improve a product in dire need of a facelift.
We all know what ultimately happened: The red line was eliminated, allowing for two-line passes, the ability to interfere and obstruct by players in defensive mode would be greatly diminished, goalies would now be restricted by the trapezoid, etc.
The end result is a game that increasing numbers of pundits and ex-players now say has become too fast: Players are bigger, faster and stronger, flying around an ice surface that hasn’t physically shrunk, but has been diminished by the sheer size and speeds of the bodies covering it. Add in the fact that the oversized goalies are for the most part freakishly great at stopping any shot that comes from outside the circles and it means the only recourse opposing players have is to create havoc in front of the net, or simply try and bowl over the goalies as they try and jam pucks behind them.
Players are only going to continue the bigger-faster-stronger pattern and the scary or blatantly cheap hits aren’t going to just go away either, especially if the league continues to dole out toothless punishments for them (i.e. a laughable five games for James Neal’s sneaky knee-to-head maneuver or a paltry seven games to John Scott for attempting to decapitate Loui Eriksson.)
As Brooks points out, “suspensions of the lengths that have become standard do not change behavior.”
So where do we go from here?
The players have to do a better job of literally protecting themselves from each other, which means, some how, some way restoring some modicum of mutual respect when it comes to the hitting aspect of the game. In other words, Tom Gilbert, the next time you hone in on an opponent in a potentially vulnerable position, you really don’t have to run him through the boards, simply separate him from the puck.
And let’s absolutely convene Shanny Summit #2--as soon as possible. The game is in need of a re-boot and who better to supervise that process than the same guy who ran the first one and is now spending way too much of his time hunched over his computer, breaking down hits and doling out punishments for them. Or not.
There’s only so much Brendan Shanahan can do in his current capacity. He is way overqualified for it. The time has come for him to move onto a position that will allow him to make a true impact on the game he loves.
Shanny Summit #2 would be a great start.