Hockey is not a sport for the weak or timid hearted because of its raw physicality and competitiveness that has players doing whatever it takes to win. Hard body checks along the boards and physicality are huge parts of the game and its heart and soul.
Over the past few years, the NHL has taken steps to police hard hits because of concussions and other issues that result from them. In the process, has it risked the heart and soul associated with the NHL?
The recent influx of cracking down on illegal hits should not interfere with the game’s heart and soul, but it could if the league is not careful.
There is a fundamental difference between a hard and legal check and a dirty, malicious hit. This hit delivered by Dion Phaneuf on Michael Sauer was hard, physical and legal.
Sauer has not played a game since and this is widely criticized as a bad hit. Phaneuf is a physical player with size and finished his check on a similar-sized opponent. He doesn’t do this to hurt Sauer in any way and it was unfortunate that Sauer was hurt.
These hits are often split-second calls by a referee and the on-ice call can often make a difference in a supplemental discipline hearing’s result.
That is why the distinct difference between the types of hits is something that needs to be better defined so the game isn't drastically altered because of tighter rules.
On the other side of the spectrum, this is a well known hit delivered by Raffi Torres that was illegal, malicious and predatory in nature.
He was rightfully suspended, even though some felt the league attempted to make an example of this repeat offender.
The casual onlooker doesn't see a difference between the two and then there are outcries for change. Now the NHL has a major television network deal, ratings and viewer demographics are more important than ever. If there are complaints about player safety and the physicality of the game, the league will likely review the rules to see if change is necessary.
While making the game safer is required with the passing times, the rugged aspect of the game should remain.
Today's NHL is drastically different from when the league was founded. Today’s game is full of skill and speed because players are better trained. There are also more teams, players are bigger and faster and the equipment they wear gives them an edge in hitting.
In the old days, you had guys who were physical and played with an edge like they do today, but the game was policed by the players and there was an unspoken code amongst them.
With additions to the rulebook like adding a third man in an instigator penalty, players can not police themselves and, as a result, guys like Torres are able take more runs at star players until the league cracks down.
Referees tend to make judgement calls and are human. However, the policing of hard hits can be dealt with by giving more power back to the players. Men in suits could decide to hand out a suspension, but players could send a message that would be more effective.
Brendan Shanahan came under harsh criticism with the rulings he handed out and failed to hand out during the regular and postseason.
He was in his first season as the league's new disciplinarian and dropped swift justice with his ban hammer early on. However, as the season progressed, the reins were loosened a bit and supplemental discipline was curbed. However, this is understandable to an extent.
Due to the split-second nature of NHL action, some legal but aggressive hits were often subject to review and criticism. This could negatively affect the game, because hockey is supposed to feature this physicality and is supposed to feature players who will do what it takes to win.
In order to help protect the game’s heart and soul, the third man instigator penalty is a rule that should be eliminated.
If players were allowed to police the game and take things into their own hands, odds are there would be less questionable hits dished out on a regular basis. Players would be able to enforce the "unwritten" codes.
Is hockey in danger of losing its heart and soul by policing hard hits?
These retaliatory hits would not have to be dirty, but they would serve as warning shots.
Dirty hits have no place in the game, but hard hits are something that should remain. There is nothing wrong with a well delivered body check that sends a player to the ice as long as it doesn't involve targeting the head or attempting to injure another player.
You can suspend a player one game and, when he comes back, he will push the limit and will get suspended for three games. Players will constantly toe the line. If the NHL takes a step back, gives the players back the old way of policing the game, a direct message will be sent. More clean, hard hits will be seen and illegal, dirty hits to send a message will be phased out.
The NHL should make some decisions over the summer. They do not want a repeat of last year where Brendan Shanahan was a laughing stock and the NHL's integrity was in question. Hockey is a physical game and players know this. If you let them play the game, things over time will take care of themselves.
Dirty hits will unfortunately always remain a part of the game because some players will never learn, but if enforcers had free reign to step into a fight after their teammate got laid out in a dirty fashion, more players would think twice about taking cheap shots and the league would be allowed to loosen their stranglehold on policing hard hits.