Sliding on my ass across our blueline at 14, I got the vibe I probably wasn't perfectly suited for contact hockey. Just a split-second earlier I was skating across the center red with the puck, so let’s call it a little more than a hunch.
Confirmation of that belief came often in the years that followed, until eventually a coach had to pull me aside and explain that my options were basically to start protecting myself or go through life with the mental acuity of an eggplant.
By "protect myself," he meant "make the shaft of my hockey stick available to an oncoming opponent's teeth" because "We'll kill the penalty, and hopefully you'll stop getting run." This was fairly common thinking at the time, and was the line heavily favored by the type of chew-stained hockey creatures who prowl North American rinks glorifying Old School Hockey.
The problem these days (and WHAT a problem), is that you can't crosscheck people in the mouth without getting suspended, so what are you supposed to do when someone takes a run at you? Sacrifice your collar bones to the hockey Gods so you can puff your chest out (if it doesn’t hurt too much) about being an “honest player?”
This comes up in the aftermath of P.K. Subban "ducking" on Shawn Thornton (a chew-stained hockey creature who prowls North American rinks glorifying Old School Hockey), his subsequent injury, and the hockey mentality that you're supposed to take the abuse out of nobility.
Tyler Dellow (@mc79hockey) wrote an excellent bit on that this weekend, where he adds Nail Yakupov getting a strip torn off him for evading Dan Carcillo last year to the conversation about P.K. Subban - are players obligated to take these hits?
Dellow argues that hitting in the NHL has evolved to an almost comical level (he uses a great "Broad Street Bullies" clip to illustrate his point), and that while we romanticize "old school tough," today's contact is used far less as a defensive tactic (to separate the man from the puck), and more as a punishment for ever having had it.
I'm of the same mind, and while I was never forced to crosscheck the Chiclets out of another man's mouth to protect myself from being run, I did feel well within the limits of hockey morals when I got the hell out of the way. Why should I get a bad rep for protecting myself as best I can?
If the “Don’t duck a hit” rule arises from a time when a bodycheck really was a way to separate a man from the puck, I’m not so sure that it’s a moral imperative when hitting’s become a punishment for having touched the puck, a price that the other team is allowed to extract from you. The circumstances in which the rule was formed no longer exist. Rather than PK Subban or Nail Yakupov allowing themselves to be hammered when they’ve got time to (mostly) evade the check, why isn’t there some onus on the hitter to protect himself? If hitting has evolved to the point that it’s a tactic in and of itself, surely there has to be some responsibility on the hitter not to launch himself into a hit when the target can evade him.
Later he adds "They’re free to not try and throw the hit," and this is about what it comes down to.
It’s unsafe to skate the puck with your head down, and it’s unsafe to charge at a guy without the puck who’s got his head up. A hitter about to make liberal use of the lax “steamboats” policy on a skill player that just moved the puck puts himself at risk.
I am in NO WAY endorsing "ducking" (which I don't think Subban really did). Flat-out, legitimate ducking really can do a lot of damage, particularly near the boards. But there are other ways to avoid getting your bones crushed to powder.
Whether that involves spinning off after moving the puck, speeding up or slowing down, or a solid cross-check to the forearms of the charging Rhino, I’m okay with it. If you have time to throw a counter-hit, even better. But for the most part, I don’t owe a player “standing here and taking it.”
One of the first things you were told was to get your stick up when someone ran you. Now you can't do it. Now you're supposed to stand there and let a guy take a run at you from 30 feet? I'm going to duck. Don't like it? Don't run me. Yeah, you're supposed to take the hit like a man and blah blah blah.
Blah blah indeed.
Pros are too big and too fast to expect anyone to stand there like a tackling dummy. Their clubs should be encouraging them to take hits to make plays when the puck is around, but also to be aware after they move the puck so they can find some evasive tactic to avoid being hit by the Thorntons and Carcillos who exist solely to dole out the “punishment for having touched the puck.”
I’m over the school of thought suggesting it's "soft" to get the hell out of the way - I call it smart. Waiting for a guy to fold your shoulders together to uphold some blurry iteration of a hockey code isn't.
Feature photo courtesy of Action Images