David Clarkson Talks Dirty Hits

Back on March 15, 2010, I spoke to David Clarkson of the New Jersey Devils about one of the most controversial topics in the league: dirty hits and the league’s approach to disciplinary actions. Clarky is probably the most knowledgeable person on the Devils concerning these topics because he’s been called a goon himself, plays a very physical game and has been ‘that guy’ that was suspended…indefinitely.

We spoke the day after Alexander Ovechkin’s (Washington Capitals) dirty hit on Brian Campbell (Chicago Blackhawks). The hit led to an ejection from the game followed by a two-game suspension without pay from the league. This was Ovechkin’s second suspension of the season, and the fourth time the league investigated one of his ‘dirty’ hits during the course of one season.

Campbell suffered a broken collarbone, a fractured rib and a concussion from the hit.

Here is the video of the hit:

Some question if the two-game suspension had been the right decision by the league. After all, Ovechkin is considered a repeat offender. His first major offense cited by many players in the league was his hit on Sergei Gonchar the previous season. The knee-on-knee hit during Game 4 of the playoffs in 2009 took Gonchar out of the lineup. No suspension was given to the Russian wonder and there were a few players in the league that were very disgruntled with that decision and called it a ‘double-standard’.  They believed that if it had been any other player in the league, they would have had the book thrown at them.

Another controversial hit that happened around the same time as Ovechkin’s hit to Campbell was Matt Cooke’s (Pittsburgh Penguins) blindside hit to Marc Savard’s head (Boston Bruins) that left Savard unconscious on the ice. Doctors determined afterwards that Savard suffered from a concussion due to the hit.

The league did not suspend Cooke for the controversial blindside head shot.

“It’s tough,” Clarkson said. “Everybody asks me about hits…the Cooke hits and stuff like that. The league has been doing this a long time so any decision they make is going to be the right one.”

“I’m sure [the league] looks at things a bit different,” Clarkson said. “You look at Cooke the night before. He did something that everyone thought was pretty dirty and he never got any games. That’s the guy that’s a repeat offender. He’s done it before.”

Georges Laraque has argued vehemently in the past that there is a double-standard in the league. For players like Ovechkin who are the VIPs of the league, they only seem to get away with a slap on the wrist, while a lesser offense without injury from someone called a ‘goon’ would warrant a lengthier suspension.

Clarkson disagreed with Laraque’s assessment.

“I don’t know. I don’t think Colin Campbell is a guy that really targets guys. I think if you play a physical game and you are known to do that stuff, they are going to look at it closer. Maybe [Ovechkin] is a guy that they look at closely.

“I’ve been suspended in my junior career for indefinitely. I’ve been through it with David Branch, Colin Campbell and all of them. I believe that they have the players’ best interests in mind. They’re going to do what they feel is right. But sometimes to people, it looks different than maybe it was. Maybe they see something on the video that we don’t see, so it’s tough to really say much about it.”

“I stay neutral in the whole thing,” he said of the double-standard. “The league…I’ve never had them do something to me. I’m a pretty physical player myself. I’ve never had them do anything to me that makes me feel that way. Some players, I’m sure, have had their suspensions where they feel that it should have been less than this guy. It happens in everything you do.”

With Ovechkin being known as one of the most dangerous physical players on the ice, should the league exercise greater scrutiny on his physical play? Should he have gotten more than just a couple of slaps on the wrist? The injuries Brian Campbell sustained in the hit would lead some to believe that Ovechkin should have gotten more than two games.

“The kid plays a hard game every night,” Clarkson said. “Ovechkin is kind of all over the place. Maybe he’s going for the puck this way, but you’re coming this way. He’s hit me before so hard that I came back to the bench and didn’t even know who hit me, and I didn’t even have the puck. I’m like, ‘How is that not…’. But you know what? I haven’t even seen our video and not everything looks the way it looks to people. I just think he’s a player that’s all over. He finishes. He does so much. I couldn’t comment on it if he should have got more, or should he not have. It’s a tough thing to say.

“It’s the same thing with Cooke. They said Cooke was a second offender. They said, ‘How does he not get…it’s a second time doing it.’ I believe Colin Campbell is the best at what he does for a reason. He’s in the NHL.”

These were surprising words coming from Clarkson. But apparently, he had his reasons on why he thought so highly of Colin Campbell.

“I’ve played with his son. I’ve known him on a level…that watching. I was there when he suspended [Todd] Bertuzzi for a long time. I think the league is in place to do what’s best for the players. I think for the most part, they do a good job and they have our interests in mind.”

While the league’s disciplinary actions have always made many feel it was either just or it should have warranted more of a punishment, the league has been known to make mistakes which leads to overall changes in the rules.

The league’s decision on disciplinary actions revolve around the player’s history (whether he is a repeat offender), his intent to do harm, and whether the other player was hurt in the incident. While Cooke received no punishment, the league decided to change its rules on head shots in the league.

Over the summer, the Board of Governors issued the following statement:

On June 24, the NHL Board of Governors approved a rule change that provides for a major penalty and a game misconduct for a “lateral or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.”

Under the new rule, the NHL Hockey Operations Department is empowered to review any such hit for the purpose of Supplementary Discipline.

The NHL Hockey Operations department has created a 7-minute video that shows examples of legal and illegal hits under the new rule.

Click here for NHL video.

The Cooke hit on Savard that went without disciplinary action is now considered an illegal blindside hit in the NHL based on the new rules and is subject to punishment.

[For more on David Clarkson, please visit NHLPA.com for a special interview]

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