The look on Alexander Semin’s face as Dan Boyle stood over him near the end of last night’s Olympic match between Russia and Canada said it all. Semin did not expect retaliation for his late hit on Boyle seconds earlier. And when that retaliation came by way of a slew-foot, he had no idea what to do next.
The incident began with just under three minutes left in Canada’s 7-3 blowout over Russia in the Tournament Quarter-Finals. As Boyle played the puck around the boards behind his own net, Semin stepped up and drove him hard into the boards with an aggressive shoulder check.
Boyle got up, chased after Semin, and then hauled him down from behind, taking his skates out from under him. After a scrum, both players received penalties, and some believe Boyle might face further discipline by way of suspension.
By hockey standards, Semin’s hit was clean, and Boyle admitted that in a post-game interview. What made the hit angering to Boyle and many Canadian spectators was the fact that it was completely unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
The most anticipated hockey game of the tournament, and possibly of the decade, turned out to be a frustrating and embarrassing venture for the Russians. Canada took a three-goal lead early, and held control of the game through the entire 60 minutes, thanks in part to Boyle’s spectacular play (1 goal, 2 assists).
When the hit occurred, the puck was 180 feet away from Semin’s net. There was no need to take Boyle out of the play. Semin was not playing the puck, as Boyle had already released it. Both players were skating their final shifts of a lopsided game, so there was no momentum to be gained by a big hit.
And it’s not as if these teams were meeting later in the week for game two. Sending a message does not apply in a single-elimination format.
Of course, hitting is part of hockey. All the players know that. Had this hit occurred earlier in the game, in a tighter game, or even earlier in the tournament, it would have served a purpose and been a great hockey play.
As it was, however, the only purpose it served was to let Semin work out his frustration against a smaller player who had outplayed him. It had nothing to do with hockey, and everything to do with ego. Luckily, Boyle wasn’t injured as he flew into the boards. But the risk should not have been taken when there was no possible reward.
The aftermath of the hit was equally ugly. A slew-foot is a dirty play, and attacking a player from behind is both dishonorable and dangerous. But one has to wonder what options Boyle had. There likely wasn’t enough time left for an opportunity to hit him back cleanly. And when you take fighting out of the game of hockey, as the Olympic Committee has, these are the types of plays you’ll be left with.
Would this play have happened in the NHL? If Semin knew that he might have to answer to an enforcer on Boyle’s team, would he have thrown that hit? Maybe. But he definitely would have thought twice, and probably would have backed off.
And if Boyle had the opportunity to settle his anger with fisticuffs, or known that someone else on the team would go after him, would he have slew-footed Semin from behind? Doubtful. I’ve never seen Boyle that before.
There is debate over whether fighting should continue to be tolerated in the NHL. This incident on Olympic Ice is a good example of why it should. These types of plays are what fighting reduces in the NHL, making it safer.
While fighting appears ultra-violent, it is far less violent and dangerous than allowing players to work out their frustrations along the boards or settle their scores with attacks from behind. It is the prospect of a fight which protects smaller, skilled players from being run and injured. And anyone who remembers the Bertuzzi/Moore incident knows how dangerous an attack from behind can be.
Boyle’s actions were no where near as bad as Bertuzzi’s, obviously. But the fact that a normally clean player was obliged to surprised everyone, including Semin, with a slew-foot shows what hockey can be reduced to when fighting is taken out.