Dirty debate over Senators’ Eric Gryba’s ‘clean’ hit
Old Time Hockey watchers say it’s part of the game. But how long before such blows end in tragic consequences, and will rules then change?
Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller lies injured on the ice following a hit by the Ottawa Senators’ Eric Gryba during NHL playoff action in Montreal on Thursday, May 2, 2013. Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien accused Ottawa Senators counterpart Paul MacLean of “disrespect” on Friday for his comments about a hit that put Eller in hospital.
Photograph by: Graham Hughes, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — Back in 1791, when the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, the state-of-the-art weapon was the flintlock musket. YouTube has a six-minute, nine-second video on how to measure and pour in the powder, load the ball, ramrod the wad, prime and fire a Brown Bess.
It doesn’t take that long to do, but it takes some time, long enough to form a thought, maybe even a second thought.
The framers of the amendment, oddly enough, didn’t foresee the day when there would be rapid-fire automatic rifles and handguns capable of spraying a swath of death that kills dozens in a couple of heartbeats. And yet in 2013, the gun lobby still clings to the chapter-and-verse interpretation of the right to keep and bear arms as if updating it to reflect modern weaponry would be the end of liberty in America.
And so it is in hockey. The standard refrain, from the defenders of How It’s Always Been, is that the game as we know it cannot survive if the “clean” hit that happens to destroy a player’s brain — collateral damage, as it were — is taken away.
Then again, in the old days, nobody even realized players’ brains could be damaged. They were made of sterner stuff then. Smelling salts would fix any temporary discombobulation, and out they went for another shift.
But we actually do know a little more now. Not everything there is to know, but enough to be sure of two things:
1. The dramatic increase in the size and speed of players, the degree to which violent hits are celebrated by fans and prized by coaches, the number of players being concussed, and the looming pandemic of sports lawsuits that are certain to arise from leagues’ failures to recognize and protect players’ brains have all combined to put sports — and hockey among the front-runners — in a very dangerous, vulnerable position.
2. Hockey’s rule book needs to be significantly rewritten, again, to reflect the damage that modern weaponry, if you accept the analogy, can wreak upon the victims of what used to be legal contact in the days when the hip-check would have been the highlight-reel hit (if there’d been highlight reels).
Friday’s ruling by the NHL’s department of player safety — a two-game banishment of Ottawa’s Eric Gryba for a “clean” hit (by the old definitions) that left Montreal’s Lars Eller lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood — was another small step toward recognizing that the world has changed, and the law must change with it.
Only it has to change more, and faster. The steps have to be bigger, and less about the injury, and more about the why.
It won’t wash any longer to simply say, as Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault did Friday: “It seemed like it was a good hit. It’s part of hockey. Unfortunately, the young man got hurt.”
Misfortune had nothing to do with it. Culture did. Crude intent did. Years of being conditioned by Scott Stevens highlights and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em video encouragement to lower the boom on a player who dares to look down, or look back, did. All of that has to change for the sport’s own protection.
Physical punishment has always been part of hockey. The orgasmic rush of a perfectly-timed hit is hard to describe; its effect on teammates and fans is not. It is a “wow!” moment ... until the victim doesn’t get up. Only then does a modicum of remorse kick in. By which time, it’s too late for either party, and soon it will be too late for hockey.
Ottawa head coach Paul McLean’s stance, in the moments after Thursday night’s win over the Habs, was predictable.
His defence of the Gryba hit — and let’s be honest, any coach would do the same for one of his players — was factually correct but based on ancient standards that just don’t apply any more.
“I don’t care what that bug-eyed, fat walrus has to say,” Canadiens tough-guy forward Brandon Prust said. Neither, evidently, did the league, but Prust — before the two-game suspension was announced Friday — made it pretty clear that he’d have been OK with the eye-for-an-eye solution.
“You know what? Actually I hope he doesn’t get suspended,” Prust said.
MacLean’s reference to the hit being the consequence of a suicide pass from defenceman Raphael Diaz was correct, as far as it went, but infuriated Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.
“When he compared that to a hockey hit, the comparison he made was with the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” Therrien said. “This is why we’ve got new rules, to avoid those hits when a player is vulnerable.”
MacLean, though, was not alone in his opinion.
On TSN, which pronounced Gryba’s hit clean by consensus, studio panellist Mike Peca — who’s been on both ends of concussion-causing hits — said that in Eller’s position, if he hadn’t been out cold, he’d have probably gone down the bench and punched Diaz in the nose.
“The defenceman is your eyes on that play,” Canucks forward Ryan Kesler said.
Many of the participants in the Canucks-San Jose Sharks series claimed not to have seen the hit that was replayed repeatedly on pretty much every TV station on the dial, but a few had opinions.
“I’d take a one-game suspension for that hit,” said Sharks forward Adam Burish, when it seemed one game might be all Gryba would get. “It was a game-changer. One game? It was worth it.”
“Respect,” said Kesler, at the opposite end of the spectrum. “There’s not much respect in this league.”
The NHL has tried to legislate some, making the hitter responsible for blows delivered to unsuspecting players, but it’s a long, hard road made harder by uneven precedents and decades of lax punishment and enforcement.
Old Time Hockey cling-ons, and that includes most of the NHL’s GMs and coaches, will hate it, but the league is going to be forced into a blanket rule on hits that impact the head, even as a secondary point of contact — complete with lengthier suspensions.
It’s only a question of how long hockey’s truthers want to dig in their heels and pine for the past.
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