The New NHL - Don Cherry's Rock Em Sock Em Hockey - A Thing Of The Past?
Long gone are the days of "old time hockey", the days of the original 6, players and goalies without helmets, when fighting and hitting were as much a part of the game as scoring goals. Back in the old days, they used to have a saying, "I went to see the fights, and wouldn't you know it if a hockey game broke out". In today's new NHL, you would be lucky to see a big hit, never mind a fight, as the game becomes more politically correct.
I grew up watching hockey in the 80s and 90s, I remember watching bench clearing brawls, with all the players from each team dropping the gloves and slugging it out, the two goalies meeting at center ice, shrugging their shoulders and mutually agreeing to drop the gloves and join in the fun. I remember watching Scott Stevens end the career of Eric Lindros with a vicious body check that caused Lindros (the biggest star in the league at the time), to fall to the ice completely unconscious. At the time, the announcers, hockey writers and league officials all agreed, while it was clear that Steven's intended to hurt Lindros, it was a clean hit, and just part of the game of hockey.
In 1989, Don Cherry released his first in a long series of hockey videos, "Rock Em, Sock Em Hockey". The videos would highlight the season's greatest goals, along with the biggest hits and the bloodiest fights. Now 2 decades later, and we have to wonder if Don will be able to find any new material for his videos, if you look at the hitting in some of his earlier volumes, almost all of these hits would result in a lengthy suspension in today's NHL.
With so much attention focused on head injuries, the NHL is focused on making the game safer, a noble idea, but at what cost? Nobody wants to see careers cut short due to head injuries, but do we really want to change the game, making it unrecognizable to hockey purists? There will always be a certain amount of risk when playing contact sports at a high level, this is something that players, fans and league officials simply need to come to terms with.
Eliminating head shots is a good start, I can remember an incident over a decade ago when Gary Suter crosschecked Paul Kariya in the head, while he was celebrating scoring a goal. At the time Kariya was one of the leagues most prolific scorers, but he never really seemed to be the same player after that cheap shot. These sorts of ugly plays have no place in hockey, and it is nice to see the league cracking down on cheap shots, especially those targeting the head.
The league is not stopping there however, the definition of a "clean hit', seems to be a much debated topic these days. Players have been suspended for hits that in the past would not have even raised an eyebrow. Brendan Shanahan offered a lengthy explanation of a recent suspension handed out to Alex Ovechkin for charging, and his explanation did make some sense, Ovechkin's skates left the ice just prior to delivering a hit on Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek. According to NHL rules, a player should receive a minor or major penalty for skating, jumping or charging into an opponent in any manner. Well no doubt that Ovechkin did leave his skates, even though they were just an inch off the ice, and it happened just prior to delivering the hit. It would seem more logical to impose a minor penalty for such an infraction, rather than a 3 game suspension.
The rules regarding charging are left up to interpretation, and these days you could almost classify any hit as a charge, after all, it is pretty difficult to hit somebody without skating into them? These new rule interpretations and suspensions handed out by the NHL are forcing players to think twice about delivering any sort of body check, effectively taking the "big hit" out of hockey. Looking back at the evolution of the game, we can remember when the league attempted to protect the goalies, for a few years we were forced to watch instant replays of almost every goal, to check for skates in the crease. Over time, the NHL officials eventually came to their senses, and realized that they were destroying the game by disallowing perfectly good goals due to inadvertent crease violations. Let us hope that they eventually recognize that taking the hitting out of hockey is a big mistake.
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