May 3, 2009 in Sports

Hey, NHL: Let the players hit

Mark Whicker Orange County Register
 

DETROIT – At the risk of sounding like a barbarian, let’s slow this trend toward hockey safety before it’s too late.

What Mike Brown did to Jiri Hudler on Friday night in Detroit was dirty only in the sense that Chili Davis bowling over catcher Mike Scioscia in 1986 was dirty.

This incident on Steve Yzerman Drive on Friday night was a shoulder to the head, little more. Brown’s arm was not extended. His elbow was closed. His stick was under control. He did not make a rink-wide beeline for Hudler and whack him long after the puck was gone.

This was professional hockey. This is not bantam, midget, mite, high school, rec league or even college hockey. The hard hit is part of the NHL’s bloodstream, so to speak. It is tactical and cumulative, even inspirational. Alex Ovechkin is not the best player in the four major professional sports because he scores 50 goals. He is the best player because he also nails everything in a different jersey.

But the officials gave Brown a 5-minute interference penalty and a game misconduct, kicking him out of Game 1 in the first period. It also allowed the Red Wings to score as many times as they could during that five minutes, although the Ducks held them to one.

Brown was not suspended, which relieved the Ducks but also seemed to invite more questions. How can something be blatant on Friday night and forgiven on Saturday afternoon?

“Things like that happen in a split-second,” Todd Marchant said after the Ducks practiced Saturday.

“I was a little surprised at what the call was, but when I asked the refs, they said they’ve been able to call 5-minute interference in situations like that.”

The general managers gave the officials that leeway a season ago, in the laudable name of injury prevention. But the officials shouldn’t tilt games because they’re afraid they’ll be reprimanded for letting a head shot go unpunished, even when it’s clean, and in context.

“A guy like me gets hit in the head all the time,” said the 5-foot-10 Marchant. “Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. But it’s a physical game. You can’t be looking down at where your pass just went. Things happen fast and emotions build up. You have to be careful.”

Perhaps what you’re seeing is some overzealous scrubbing of a game that never was meant to be immaculate.

On Friday, Mike Milbury was asked what the Ducks could do to keep Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom from pitching a tent in front of goalie Jonas Hiller. Milbury is a former Boston defenseman and head coach and a former general manager of the Islanders. He also is weary of hearing contentiousness confused with violence.

“I don’t know how they’re going to stop him,” Milbury said. “They’ve made the game so wimpy now. All this self-congratulatory nonsense about how the game has changed so dramatically forgets several areas. This is one of them.

“When a defenseman can’t give a body check or a short cross-check I’m not talking about rape and murder here. We’re talking about good, physical battles in front of the net and you don’t have that anymore. You have Holmstrom and (Johan) Franzen even toeing inside the crease at times and there’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it.”

Predatory players should be penalized. The rest should be allowed to maintain hockey’s balance of nature, found at the intersection of fear, risk and frenzy.

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