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Big Hits Remain Big; How the League Can Promote Good Ones Over Bad

Big hits are a memorable part of the game, so much so that the NHL includes clips of them along with goals and saves. Given increasing safety concerns, I suggest a proactive approach for the league to explain good hits in the hopes of encouraging them over bad hits.

Good? Bad? Big enough?  Just contact?  Perhaps an explanation would help.
Good? Bad? Big enough? Just contact? Perhaps an explanation would help.
Bruce Bennett

Most everyone who's a hockey fan understands and appreciates a big hit.  A bodycheck that's hard.  A play that takes a player down, makes the boards and glass rattle, and gets the home fans up.  If it's by their team, the cheers signify their approval.  If not, then the boos may come, especially if the hit is thought to be illegal.  Significant ones get discussed as much as other plays on the following play and once in a while, you'll get a memorable one for years. Developers like EA SPORTS create new physics engines get more realistic hitting as it's part of the game.  When one goes check out the game highlights on video at, there are three types of individual clips: goals, saves, and hits.  The first two are directly involved with the result of the game. The latter is there because people want to see it.  Simply put, big hits get attention for being an impressive physical displays in a game filled with constant action.

Of course, there has been controversy surrounding the hit.  We now know more about concussions among other injuries, which raises doubts about how safe players can be in such a physical game.  The league has instituted a rule specifically for head shots.  There are now video explanations as to why a player was subjected for supplemental discipline, regardless of whether there was a penalty on the play.  Yet there remains much murkiness around it.  While fighting stops the hockey, body checks are a legitimate way to remove player from puck.  In a game where everyone's skating around at various speeds, subtle shifts in position or timing can make the difference between a big, clean hit and a nasty one that may injure a player.  Yet, the risk makes the game exciting to watch and even play.  Should the league be promoting it by way of making it a highlight?

Well, again, the masses enjoy big hits, myself included, and so the answer is yes.   But I also think the league can take a pro-active step and highlight good hits with an explanation.  They can highlight a few each week from various games and members of NHL Department of Player Safety can explain why they're valid hits.  It would be the opposite of what Brendan Shanahan does when explaining a suspension or fine.   It would not only ease concerns about cheering for hits, but also highlight for the players - current and future - what is and isn't acceptable.  General guidelines from such an explanation can drive what hits get included in highlight packages.   Let's take a few from the Devils' 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh last Thursday as an example.

Now, this is the sort of hit that falls into a little bit of a gray area that could benefit with some explanation.  Evgeni Malkin loses the puck behind the net to Stephen Gionta.  Adam Larsson went around the far side of the net and threw a check on Malkin.  Technically, it was a little late and not all that necessary as Malkin no longer had possession.  However, the check itself wasn't illicit. Larsson went body on body, he didn't charge in, and his shoulder made the principle point of contact.  If Malkin didn't fall and if it didn't come from Larsson of all people, then I wonder if this hit would even be considered as a highlight.

Here's video proof that Anton Volchenkov can also throw hits.  OK, he's done a few more of them than Larsson.  In any case, he lined up Brandon Sutter coming through the neutral zone.  He kept him wide, stepped up when Sutter came over the blueline, and led with his shoulder.  He put Sutter up against the boards and separated him from the puck.  This is a good video example of a good hit.  Even the play by play guy for the Penguins stated it right away: it was a good hit.  While it may be obvious to most as to why it's a good hit, this is the sort of play the league can explicitly support.

This is an example of a hit that really should be discouraged.  Brandon Sutter gets the puck in the corner along the boards and just as he makes contact, Dainius Zubrus hits him from behind.  While Sutter did have the puck, this easily could have been a boarding penalty on Zubrus on another night.   It was a dangerous move and with a little more force or a little bit of a turn by Sutter, it could have turned out ugly.  This would probably explain why Sutter and Zubrus jacked their jaws a bit after this play, nearly coming to blows.  I'm not saying the league should fine or suspend Zubrus, but this would be something not to promote.

There will be continued legitimate progress in terms of player safety on hits and there will be continued legitimate concerns for the same.  The game as a whole will have ride the line between the physical play that makes hockey hockey and what shouldn't be allowed.  For the moment, the big hit is here and it will remain as a stand out event in games, both real and virtual like in NHL 14.  I'm hoping the league considers explanation and positive reinforcement for hits with the videos they already maintain in addition to adding and modifying rules.   This way we're all a little bit clearer about the hits we recognize and enjoy.