The eyes of Chicago Blackhawks' forward Martin Havlat were glazed over and distant.
Havlat, tied for the team lead in points, was the latest victim of a vicious hit, compliments of Red Wings' defenseman Niklas Kronwall.
Kronwall has done this before. He has built quite the reputation around the National Hockey League for being an open-ice, head-hunting predator in the mold of former New Jersey Devils' captain Scott Stevens.
Havlat was along the boards in the defensive zone just before the blue line. The puck was coming along the boards and went between his skates. Havlat was looking for the puck in his feet, head down and helpless.
And then it happened. Kronwall delivered the most devastating hit of the playoffs, and he did it in textbook fashion. Timed perfectly, he struck Havlat with his shoulder—not his elbow—and his skates did not leave the ice until after contact was made.
Old-time hockey fans would call it a thing of beauty. Havlat had his head down and he paid the price. But was the cost too much? He was obviously concussed, and sports in this age take head injuries very seriously.
One major point needs to be established: according to the how the rules have always been interpreted, it was a clean hit. Referee Dan O'Halloran gave Kronwall a five-minute major and a game misconduct only because Havlat couldn't get up.
It was a spineless call. The hit did not even warrant a minor penalty, nevertheless getting thrown out. The injury and the reaction of the Chicago fans had too much impact on the officiating.
But because he followed the rules, it does not make the play any less gruesome to watch. It was clearly a head shot, and the NHL is trying to find ways to take head contact out of the game.
In the Ontario Hockey League—a Canadian junior hockey league—any contact to the head warrants at least a two-minute penalty. The rule makes players more cautious and aware of hits that could affect the livelihoods of other players.
However, injuries aside, this is what fans want to see. Skill trumps all, and the post-lockout brand of hockey that puts a premium on skilled play over neutral-zone obstruction has done its part to slowly-but-surely bring fans back. But hockey fans—both die-hard and casual alike—love to see fights, big hits and controlled violence.
And if anything, Kronwall's style of play makes it one step closer to debunking the line of thought that European players can't cause this style of grit.
Kronwall, a native of Sweden, uses his body like a missile. He rackets up the physical play around playoff time. He's only 6-feet, 189 pounds, but he is lethal.
Was it a dirty hit? No, it was within the rules. But was it violent? Absolutely.
Much can be debated regarding if it belongs in the game. Hockey is a violent sport. A lot of its appeal comes from the notion that players can police the game on their own. So much skill, yet so much brutality.
It is surprising, though, that hockey people are debating whether Kronwall—a European—plays a dirty brand of hockey.
Nobody ever questioned the vicious open-ice hits of Scott Stevens, a Canadian. He never won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. He simply made a career by trying to end the career of others.
He succeeded more than once, and now he sits in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
As published in 5/27 edition of Central Michigan Life.
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