The league has made their decision, and there will be no suspension to Flyers captain Mike Richards for his brutal hit on Florida's David Booth a night ago. While many, especially those in the Miami area, may disagree, the league got this one right according to the current rules of the NHL.
Before we delve into the debate about the hit, let's watch it. Richards' shoulder does make contact with Booth's head, but his arms are both down, and in real time, it's a split second after the puck leaves Booth's stick. Secondly, he barely leaves his skates on the left side, but any time in the air is after the initial impact.
Richards doesn't have a history of being a dirty hockey player, and one would go through a lot of distress trying to find an illegal check he's performed in his career.
"I'm never out there to hurt anyone," Richards said last night. "I have respect for the game and respect for the players. My concern is with (Booth). Hopefully, he's fine and gets better. I just wanted to separate him from the puck. He dished it off and everything happened so quickly."
Florida's Keith Ballard even went as far as agreeing with Richards on the respect notion, but of course he disagrees with the overall hit, saying that he's "a good, honest hockey player" but that he knows Booth was in a "vulnerable position" and that he still went after him. My question to Ballard is "what's wrong with that?"
When Richards hit Atlanta's Ronald Petrovicky in 2006, where was the uproar? When Scott Stevens hit Eric Lindros ten years ago, a hit that came at just about the same spot on the Wachovia Center ice as the one on Booth last night, where was the uproar? It was nowhere to be found because everybody believed that the players are accountable for putting themselves in a vulnerable position. It's not like Richards told Booth to admire his pass, even it was just for a split second.
Historically in the NHL, like with the Stevens hit, there is absolutely zero debate about this sort of thing. Stevens was even championed for it by the Hockey Hall of Fame. Their website reads:
His thunderous checks, most notably on Eric Lindros in the semifinals, both inspired and dominated the post-season, and when his Devils won the Cup there was no question that he would be chosen winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the post-season.
But some want to change the conventional wisdom about these type of hits. As recently as last March at the NHL General Managers' Meetings in Florida, shoulder checks to the head were specifically discussed. The opinions were mixed.
"Right now, you can blindside a guy -- you can see a player coming through the center of the neutral zone looking away to catch or receive a pass and you can drop your shoulder right into his head and it's a perfectly legal and appropriate hit," now former NHLPA head Paul Kelly said at those meetings. "We don't think that is correct. We think that is a serious safety issue."
League disciplinarian Colin Campbell, who usually makes the suspension decisions but didn't today because his son plays for the Panthers, disagrees with Kelly and echoes the sentiments of the Stevens' era, the type of game the Richards plays.
"I believe there is a responsibility by the player getting hit by a legal check that he has to have his head up and avoid it," Campbell said. "In my day, if you got hit that way, legally by a player, your teammates would wonder what was going on, your coach would look at you and maybe not say anything, but your dad for sure when you got home would give you crap for having your head down. I'm certainly concerned about player safety, but I'm more concerned about taking a play out of the game that is a good, physical part of the game."
According to the rules at hand right now in this league, this is a legal hit. It's part of the game. If that changes in the future, if Campbell's day becomes the distant past, then so be it. But for now, Booth and anybody else that takes the ice against Mike Richards should keep their head on a swivel.