Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Where's This Stuff In "The Code?"

A couple of weeks ago, Columbus Blue Jackets blueliner Ole-Kristian Tollefsen caught Leafs forward Jason Blake skating out of his defensive zone with his head down and made him pay for his mistake, one that a guy who has been in the League as long as Blake has (or for any amount of time, for that matter) should never have made.

Tollefsen absolutely crushed Blake, and did so well within the rules of the game (hockey is, after all, a contact sport), and yet the reaction it elicited from Blake's teammates was predictable: someone had to fight the nasty Norweigian, and pronto (unfortunately for Alexei Ponikarovsky, he was the guy left to challenge the much more seasoned fighter):

There are a couple of ways to look at these events, and I'm not entirely sure they're mutually exclusive. The first is to praise "Poni" for defending his still-writhing teammate. The second is to ask, "When the hell did clean hits start commanding a response like that?"

The latter was my reaction at the time (as you can see in the comments here), and was my reaction last night when Rene Bourque jumped Tyler Sloan after Sloan lit up Daymond Langkow:

I wasn't going to harp on it any more, but I caught Ken Campbell's post on the topic this afternoon, and thought it worth passing along. Campbell writes:
This is getting ridiculous. How do you expect to have hitting in the game when the player delivering a clean hit has to worry about being jumped and pummeled by some idiot who is hell-bent on revenge? No matter what you think about fighting in hockey, the increasing number of fights that come on the heels of clean hits are ridiculous.

After all, aren’t enforcers – and all players for that matter - supposed to live by "the code?" Nobody has ever fully explained "the code" to me, but I have to think part of it suggests these guys are all man enough to pick themselves up after a clean hit. These boneheads justify what they do by saying that you can’t allow guys to "take liberties" with your top players.

Whaaa? Exactly where in the NHL rulebook does it state that good players are immune from clean hits? You’re not supposed to let the other team score goals either, but you don’t start jumping on your opponents and beat them every time your team is scored on.
Spot on, Kenny Boy (and killer use of "whaaa?").

Now, in fairness, the situation hasn't yet arisen (knock wood) where it's one of "my guys" lying in a heap on the ice, and I'm sure that my initial reaction will be to want the head of the thug who lays out Alex Semin on a pike, even if the hit was clean. But at the same time, the overwhelming thought in my head will be "he should have had his head up - he knows better."

Campbell's piece is definitely worth a read, and I'll let him wrap this post up as he did his own, relating the events surrounding a recent big-hit-turned-donnybrook involving Kurt Sauer levelling Andrei Kostitsyn (the hit itself was questionable, so the fight that followed was understandable... but this reaction wasn't):
[A]fter the game, Georges Laraque of the Canadiens said it doesn’t matter if a hit is "clean or dirty," somebody has to take on Sauer in that situation.

The only problem is, that kind of attitude runs counter to everything that’s noble in hockey. Yes, it does matter if the hit is clean. It’s part of the game, just like scoring goals and killing penalties.

If NHL players are going to hold themselves up as the standard bearers of internal fortitude and honor, maybe they should start acting as thought they really believe it.

Take the hit and move on.
Update: Here's Bourque on his hit and the aftermath:
"I wasn't happy with the amount of penalty minutes I'd got. I'd never seen a nine-minute powerplay before, and if I knew that would be the case, I wouldn't have done what I'd done.


Bourque said Sloan's check wasn't dirty, "just hard" so he didn't think twice about going after the Capitals defenceman.
Idiocy. Pure idiocy (and clear evidence that it's up to the refs - not the players - to get this crap under control).


Anonymous said...


Dirk Hoag said...

Well said; I just watched a sequence here in the Oilers-Blackhawks tilt that had me thinking the same thing just before this post came through my RSS reader.

Vishnovkski (sp?) was carrying the puck in his own end, heading back into the corner, as a Chicago forward bore down on him. He then turned his back on the player, and his face toward the boards, as he flipped the puck on his backhand out of trouble. Of course, he got crunched hard into the glass, and staggered off the ice, due largely to his ill-advised turn.

Smid for Edmonton then came over and tangled with the Blackhawk, who seemed stunned by having to fight.

Worse yet, a couple minutes later, lumbering mouth-breather Ben Eager came off the bench to take a run at Zack Stortini. He stumbled badly, missed the hit, and clipped Stortini up high with a careless high stick, earning Chicago a four-minute penalty. Boy, that sure showed 'em!

The whole sequence was an exercise in futility. Vishnovski's idiotic turn, Smid's senseless retaliation, and Eager's bumbling attempt at intimidation...

Anonymous said...

I don't know, J.P. I get the honor of the sport part. But the game is so much about intimidation.

When you're playing, you're always wanting the opponent thinking twice about standing in front of your net, whacking your goalie, chasing down the puck behind the net, and, well, laying out one of your teammates at center ice, wondering what might happen next.

Clean hit or not, you want to intimidate your opponent into not even taking that clean shot when its open to them. That's a great advantage to your team, to get even the would-be clean hitter to think twice.

You might say, well, your team can lay out someone too later in the game, and even the score that way. That's probably a better way to do it, but it leaves you and your team preoccupied with the opportunity to make that hit, and that's not effective for your overall game plan. Especially if you're already behind in a game.

And there's a lot of instinct and raw emotion on display out there --that's the nature of such a fast-paced sport confined by boards, ever since, well, I guess that exhibition game in Montreal in 1875 that brought it all indoors. Take no immediate action, and it *might* serve to demoralize the team.

If someone wiped me out, even on a clean hit, I'd want to see a scrum somewhere on the ice when I'm able to re-focus. (I know, its happened to me once.) If I saw no action, I'd wonder how much my teammates care about me.

Finally, I know this is a long-winded comment, in the Sloan case, perhaps it was also a matter of just jumping the NHL rookie to show him that you can't go out there in your first game and run our veterans, etc, etc.

In the end, I don't have a big problem with it. Let the refs sort it out, as they did appropriately last night in Calgary, and let the players and coaches decide whether or not its better for morale to retaliate immediately and take the penalties, or emotionally handle watching your guy stumbling off the ice without further incident, and just looking out for the license plate of that truck later in the game.

Anonymous said...

Well, let me ask you this, J.P. - did we think anyone should jump Malkin after a DIRTY and DANGEROUS hit? I don't recall hearing a lot of that. What I recall hearing was a lot of "where the hell was the ref's mind? 2 minute boarding for that is BS" (and it so totally was).

My point here is that I don't think that the question of whether we'd want our guys in a scrum after a clean hit is a fair one, since we weren't yelling flor his blood after an obviously dirty one.

Anonymous said...

I'm not one to praise football over hockey, but they have it right when it comes to hitting. Yeah, they go to absurd levels to protect the QB, but when someone crosses over the middle and is blown up by the safety, you never see teammates going after the guy who laid out the hit. They understand it's a contact sport and you take your chances when you venture into no man's land. I don't know when this immediate response to big hits in hockey became the norm, but back in the
70's and 80's, noone would have even though about going after someone for a clean hit. It was good to see the refs taking a stand in handing out that nine-minute PP, even if it did blow up in our face.

Hazardous said...

Laraque is a moron. No surprise there.

@This space:

I was. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you and Campbell. A clean hit is a clean hit, and should be retaliated with same. Somebody simply line up one of their guys at the next possible opportunity and run 'em.

I just don't think this is anything new. I clearly remember the McSorely on Gilmour hit in '93 was clean (Dougie had his head down) but it provoked a fight because he ran a star player near the end of the game.

Plus, Hunter taking out Turgeon in the playoffs was basically a clean hit, more or less, sort of...

Anonymous said...

Ross Bernstein's book "The Code:The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL" is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the world of hockey fighting.

Anonymous said...

Tell ya what, the best retaliation in hockey is not gooning; it's goals and wins. As B.Orr did, I applauded the refs on their call on Bourque--enough of those 9 min PP's handed out that net 3-4 goals will nip this activity in the bud.

And besides, whatever happened to following the old maxim, "you have a whole career to exact your revenge on a big hit." I guess that's old school.

JP said...

@ Pepper: But it hasn't always been like this, and the game is no more or less about intimidation now than it was back before this silliness started.

@ TSFR: A player who crosses the line deserves to answer for his actions. Malkin should have been curb-stomped.

~Mark said...

May I suggest a solution to the madness... Better power plays! If teams (like the Caps, for example) made these teams pay on the scoreboard when they do stupid crap, this stuff would stop. I also wonder, if the "new NHL" of calling every little penalty is in some way contributing to the passive/aggressive reaction to a "clean hit".
I'm just sayin...

Anonymous said...

True, JP. I'm probably in over my head on this one.

Anonymous said...

I agree with b.orr4 here -- football deals with this better than hockey. I don't think it's just about a sense of what is fair game, though. I think the NFL is much clearer about what is a "clean hit", and are willing to eliminate dangerous hits like the horse collar tackle.

I don't think it's as clear what a 'clean hit' is in the NHL, when announcers defend blindsides or hits to the head on technicalities or fans argue that a check on a player without the puck is clean. Teams feel they should go after players who throw checks because they don't want their star players injured. That doesn't justify going after every little bump, but I don't think the imaginary "code" is any help here.

Anonymous said...

Bravo. This isn't in the code because giving a 2 on 1 sucker beating to somebody for a clean play is generally frowned upon. If anything, Bourque is the one who should have faced retaliation. Too bad Brashear was out that day. As much as I hate to say it, the closest discussion about stuff like this in the book is the Moore incident. He had a legal but iffy hit on Naslund, who was injured. He eventually (like months later) showed up and fought A. Roy (iirc). If Bourque wanted to fight Sloan, he could have challenged him within the code.

That said, if the stripes hand out enough 9 minutes of power play (or 7 for that matter) for this kind of nonsense, players will get the message and this will end or be reutrn to mutually agreed upon fights. Hard hits should beget hard hits, not cheap fights. If you want to punch a guy for a legal hit, be prepared to get your team very pissed at you while you chill in the sin bin.