The deeper we get into the playoffs, the less I understand the NHL’s policy on hard hits, game misconducts, penalties and suspensions. Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall was given a five minute interference major and a game misconduct for his first period hit on Chicago’s Martin Havlat Friday night. After reviewing the play more than a dozen times, I still can’t see why any penalty was called on the play.
The reason a penalty probably was called was that Havlat is a well-known offensive player for the Hawks and the hard hit delivered by Kronwall knocked him silly. But that’s hardly a reason for calling a penalty. Are we saying to defensemen, “Your job is to hit opposing forwards and separate them from the puck, but don’t hit them TOO hard or do your job TOO well or else you’ll end up with a major penalty?”
This is the National Hockey League, not figure skating. Let’s face it, part of the reason fans watch hockey and enjoy the game is because it is a tough, physical sport. The league’s recent rule changes have allowed skill players to show off their abilities and they’ve been good changes, but they are not designed to eliminate the physical part of the game. Checking is still allowed in the game of hockey and that’s they way it should be.
The league supposedly has a checklist to distinguish dirty hits from clean ones. None of the elements of a dirty hit apply to the Kronwall check in Game 3. Did Kronwall have his stick up? No. Did he lead with his elbow? No, this was a clean hit with the shoulder. Was there a blow to the head? It sure didn’t look like it although Havlat certainly hit his head hard on the ice after the hit was delivered, but that’s not something Kronwall can control.
There was no way the hit could be called “late” as the puck was right between Havlat’s legs when contact was made. Havlat didn’t have possession of the puck when the hit was delivered, but he was in the process of attempting to play the puck. He lost sight of it and that’s why he put his head down to try to find it. The fact that he put his head down is what made him so vulnerable to Kronwall’s check.
Kronwall didn’t leave his skates to deliver the hit and he didn’t skate across the ice to deliver a blind sided blow to a player who was facing the other way or out of the play like Washington’s Donald Brashear did to New York’s Blair Betts in the opening round of the playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Amazingly, Brashear was not penalized on the play but NHL VP Colin Campbell suspended him for five games when the play was reviewed (in addition to being a late, blindside hit, Brashear did hit Betts in the head).
In this column, I have already advocated that the league automatically penalize blows to the head the same way they automatically call an infraction when a player’s stick hits an opponent in the face, even if it’s not intentional. Kronwall’s check was different. It was a clean hit. A hard hit, but a clean hit.
Certain “old school” hockey commentators like Don Cherry and Mike Milbury have spoken out against modern rules taking the physical aspect out of the game. So far, the league has walked a fine line and done a good job as far with the rules–letting the skill players show off their skills without eliminating hard hits. But if Kronwall is fined or suspended for his hit on Havlat Friday night, the commentators would be 100 percent right. To give a major penalty and a game misconduct for a clean hit just because it was hard and a player had his head down is a travesty of hockey justice. To suspend that same player in the playoffs for that hit just adds insult to injury.