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The NHL’s Hitting Problem

Far from a Flyers-specific issue, but important to note.

Carolina Hurricanes v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The following tweets that appear below show two open ice hits that have happened in this current NHL season. This comes off of a recent uptick, seemingly at least, of the number open ice hits that we’ve seen in games. Now, what is the similarity in these two plays?

Did you see it? If your answer was “massive scrum after the hit”, then you would be correct, and this highlights an issue with today’s NHL that I’ve seen many touch on, but that I don’t feel is explored in the right way.

Now, before you read any further, no this will not be a “Facebook commenter” type of argument claiming that old fashioned hockey where practically any hit was legal automatically is better. Us Flyers fans are forever haunted by that era of hockey, in particular the antics of Darius Kasparitis and Scott Stevens, and it can be honestly hard to watch older hockey where a “clean” hit leaves a player unconscious on the ice.

I will also not claim that players today aren’t any worse or less tough as they used to be, because this is simply not true, and players’ skill sets have adapted and changed with the way the game is played.

What will be argued here is that a change needs to happen one way or another, with the way hits are perceived in context of the nature of the sport. Let’s explain...

The two hits that were shown above, both Ryan Reeves’ hit and Alexander Romanov’s hit, can be classified as clean hits. Both players don’t leave their feet (Reeves is only perceived as leaving his feet due to the force of impact that changes his momentum when he makes contact with the other skater) and both players clearly are not leading with their elbows, nor are they targeting the head of the other skater.

Yet, despite this, whenever there is any hit of a larger variety than just along the boards on the fore-check or back-check, it is almost a guarantee that a scrum will take place afterwards and teams will go after the player for delivering a clean hit.

Now, yes, I understand that if a player is hurt on the play, or if only to have your teammate’s back, naturally the instinct is to go after the hitter. I can imagine that I would do the same thing if put into that situation. Often times, these teams are as tight as families (hence the common phrase “Flyers Family”) and if someone went after someone I cared about to that degree, I wouldn’t simply skate by and do nothing about it.

However, that is how the NHL used to be, and I don’t think anyone will argue that teammates didn’t have their guys’ backs any less than they do now.

It simply used to be that there was a big, clean hit, and if said hit was indeed clean and not targeted, the play would just continue unless there was an injury. No harm, no foul, just physical hockey.

Plays with big hits used to transpire more like this, which interestingly, is another example from this season:

Note how after Suzuki hits Edler, the play just keeps happening. It was just another play in the game like a pass or shot. That is what many older-school fans are clamouring for the NHL to return to, and the sight of more hits is sure to be a step in the right direction for such fans.

However, that doesn’t quite tell the full story.

Remember the following thesis statement on the article:

..the way hits are perceived in context of the nature of the sport.

It isn’t quite as simple as “more hits is good” or “less hits is good”. The game of ice hockey has changed a lot for a few reasons. Rule changes introduced after the 2004-05 lockout, more skilled players such as Sidney Crosby changing the opinions of millions of young upcoming players as to what they could do on the ice, and that said generation coming into the league faster and more skilled than ever, has in turn altered hockey.

The game is now far faster than it ever has been, and as such, by the laws of physics, hits by two faster players compared to two slower players will result in a far larger hit, with the potential for more damage to be done.

That is what is meant by “the nature of the sport” in relation to how hits are perceived. Players know that if they are hit at the speeds they are going, the result will likely not be positive for them, and players now are not expected to be blown up in the neutral zone as often as players of old were due to those rule changes and less physicality in general in the game.

So what is the point? What is to be done?

The point is that all of these scrums after large hits doesn’t benefit anyone. It is tiring to older fans who wish players could embrace the physicality more, and tiring to newer fans who don’t want the games interrupted whenever a big hit is attempted.

The NHL has a choice to make about how it wants the game to progress.

They could, behind door one, outlaw open ice hitting to a greater degree. It is far less active in the game than it was before the lockout, or even before the turn of the 2000’s to the 2010’s, but if players know any time they attempt to throw an open ice hit that they could get suspended, it will likely never happen at all. Though, this would also eliminate a lot of the physicality of the league, and move the NHL more towards Europe in regards of favoring non-checking plays.

Or, alternatively, they could embrace the open ice hitting and the return of more physical play by giving delay of game penalties to players that go after a hitter in situations involving a clean hit.

Neither of these options seems like a real solution to me, and I think either option would upset at least one group of fans (in fairness no option can ever satisfy everyone).

The answer to this conundrum, ideally, should bring the same effect the three point line did to basketball by creating a perfect balance in how the game is played. I don’t have the solution right now, and if the NHL even views this as a problem, I don’t know if they do either. However, it is a big enough annoyance that, at least in my opinion, something should be done.

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