Of Hits And Punishment

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Sports
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

My father and I have a pretty great relationship. And like many a father and son we enjoyed many of the stereotypical bonding experiences during my (and his, as a father) formative years. This is to say, we love sports. And we love sports together. A big part of who I am is being a sports fan, and more specifically being a Boston sports fan. I get a lot of that from my father, and a good portion of it from my mom too.

So living in Denver (he still lives on the East coast) we don’t get to watch sporting events together as much as we used to, or as much as we’d like. What this generally ends up meaning is that we do just like everyone else does these days: we text and email about sports, and we’ll occasionally get a phonecall in during an event or before or after or just on the weekends. Just ask my girlfriend, if i talk to my dad for 30 minutes, 20 minutes of it will be about sports. And this is such a good bonding area for us because we like the same teams, and we generally like the same sports. I have more of a developing affinity for things like Indoor Lacrosse, Rugby and the MLS than he does, but we’re in pretty good lockstep with all of the majors.

Most recently we’ve been centering our sports conversations around the Boston Bruins. We’re both big hockey fans — one of my earliest sports related memories is of sitting in the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine The Cumberland County Civic Center and watching the Maine Mariners skate out of their dressing room entrance to “The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy. To this day whenever I hear that song, I can’t help but envision and….enhear? the sound of a crowd cheering, the cut of freshly sharpened skate blades in recently polished ice, the slap of sticks on the surface, and pucks dinging their way off the post. This has helped hockey be one of the central continuing bonding points between my father and I. So it makes sense that with the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks, that we’d talk a lot about the Bruins.

Now we do have our occasional disagreements. A recent phone conversation went something like this:
Dad: I don’t like Nathan Horton, they need to get rid of him immediately.
Me (Indignant): What? No. He’s a sniper. Without Savvy you have to keep him around.
Dad (Defensive): He can’t do anything! He doesn’t have any moves around anyone. He won’t take the puck across the blue line. He’ll dump it, force a stupid pass, or turn the puck over. He can’t take the puck around people. All he can do is one-timers. He just sits in front and waits for one-timers, he doesn’t have a shot of his own.
Me (raising my voice): He’s got great firepower. I’ve seen him do all the things you say he’s not doing! He’s very skilled! yada yada yada.

We quickly deescalate from raised voices and talk about other things. It’s a normal sports argument. It’s a big part of what makes sports fun. As a kid you start by liking everything they like, having every opinion they have, seeing the game exactly how they see it. And that’s what’s fun about it. But as you grow up, your relationship matures and you’ll inevitably start seeing things differently. But those differences are a big part of what continues to keep things fresh and interesting — with sports as well as with a father son relationship, or any relationship for that matter.

But recently we’d started talking a lot about hits and discipline. For anyone that pays attention to hockey, or maybe even just occasionally watches Sportscenter, you’ll know that the NHL has had a bit of an issue on their hands in the past couple of years with an increase in concussions, dirty hits, hits to the head, etc. What’s escalated this issue has also been the (perceived if not in reality) uneven hand with which the league metes out punishment. The conversation was spawned by this hit by Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton. (FF to the 58 second mark for a better view.) The hit isn’t necessarily dirty, per se, but it’s definitely a hit that’s prohibited by the rules. It’s a hit to the head, Rome leaves his feet, and it’s even borderline blindside. All elements of hits that the league wants to remove from the game of hockey. Rome was given a 4 game suspension for the hit, meaning he’ll miss the remainder of the Finals. He was also assessed a 5-minute major for interference, and a game misconduct. Most Bruins fans saw this as adequate punishment, while most Canucks fans (and those within the organization who spoke to the media) felt this was both an overreaction to a non-call in game 1 where Alxandre Burrows bit the finger of Patrice Bergeron (that’s another blog entirely) and a complete overreaction to a hit that wasn’t anything more than a good hockey hit in the first place.

My father and I both disagree with the “Vancouver Assessment.” But we also disagree with each other on something further. For some reason this brought back memories of an incident earlier in the season between Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty, a forward for the Montreal Canadiens. FF to the 1:05 mark for a better view. While Rome was suspended for 4 games, Chara wasn’t handed any discipline whatsoever. At the time, most Boston fans agreed with this lack of punishment, and probably every single Habs fan in existence disagreed. For example, slightly more than a handful of people in Montreal actually called 911 when the league declined to hand down any discipline to Chara. For real. They called 911.

I had, and have, a problem lauding the league for their Rome suspension while excusing the Chara hit. My father and I texted about it:
Dad: I’m not sure chara realized the end of the glass was there. It was just a small bump for him, with his head up ice. (Note: Chara is giant. He’s 6’9″ before he even puts skates on.) Patch and Z weer engaged prior to the sudden stop, Z did not skate into Patch or lift the shoulder into the head.
Me: But Rome isn’t just going for an open ice hit. He doesn’t make the conscious decision to put his shoulder in Horts head, doesn’t know Horts head will break the ice.
Dad: As he closed he could have easily made it shoulder to shoulder. horton never saw him and made no changes in path or posture. Was it Blind Side Hit to the head?
Me: As Z made contact with Patch he could have easily pulled off.
Dad:If Chara had made the type of hit (shove) against Patch anywhere else on the ice there is no injury. Not so with Rome. You didn’t answer…is it a blind side hit? Is it a hit to the head?
Me: It’s more a hit to the head than blindside. But I disagree about rome hitting horts anywhere else — might not be an injury. (I made this point simply because of my dad’s word choice. He said “type of hit.” You could replicate the same hit that Rome delivered, and it may or may not result in injury.) Other spot on the ice could create a different dynamic, and the hit is different.
Me, again: There’s just something too homer about being okay with one deemed a hockey play and excusing any responsibility, while saying the other was deserving of a suspension. Doesn’t Z have a responsibility to be aware of himself, his actions, and his surroundings? And for all we know Rome lined up for shoulder to shoulder but missed. Yes he was late, and yes he left his feet, but maybe Chara lined Patch up for the stanchion.

I thought about it more. I’m having a lot of cognitive dissonance with this one. So I emailed my dad to better summarize my point. Forgive me, because as long and verbose as my posts usually are, this really challenges that.

“I think my larger point with the debate about the Chara/Rome hits is that the one thing we’re/the league is trying to correct with punishment is intent. But that’s the one thing we can never actually know for certain. We can only guess at the intent. So we can debate the two hits, but we’ll never actually know the intent. On top of that, the league can only punish two things: the action, or the consequence. Well, you can’t punish consequences because if the Horty hit is suspendable because he left the ice on a stretcher, why wouldn’t it be unsuspendable if he got up and skated off? You can’t control injuries like that, so you can’t punish things that cannot be controlled. So if the consequences can’t be controlled (ask Jesse Martin, the DU forward who had his neck broken from a clean hit this spring. Half an inch to the left, he’d be dead, half an inch to the right, he’d have finished the game — and you can’t tell me that the player that hit him could REALLY control that cumulative inch) then they can’t be punished. So the only other thing you’ve got left is the action itself. Well what’s the action in the Rome case? Rome delivering a hit to the head of Horton. Injury or not, that falls under Rule 48 or whatever it is, that provides penalty for hits to the head and blindside hits.

So in the Chara case, we know already that we can’t punish the consequence. So we have to punish (or rather, decide if punishment is warranted) based on the action. What is the action? It’s Chara hitting Pacioretty into a stanchion. We cannot judge intent, as I’ve already said, so you have to look solely at that action, and what responsibility the player has for his actions, awareness, and everything else — just like you would with Rome, or any other player in a similar situation.

And that’s why I have trouble defending Chara for his hit, and lauding the league for suspending Rome. My judgment of those two incidents is based upon intent, and my projection on to the players involved; Chara is a good guy, and Rome is dirty. But you cannot objectively assess the situation with intent, because the intent only comes from us, we insert the intent with which we judge the action. Players will always say they didn’t mean to, and they hope the other guy is okay because you have to. That’s what you do. If you don’t, you’re name is Matt Cooke and you’re going to find that your own teammates won’t defend you anymore. So once we remove the question of intent, I can’t see any difference between what Chara did and what Rome did. Rome wasn’t in proper control of his body, and did not have appropriate awareness so as not to injure Horts when he chose to make that hit. This is true either through either choice or inability to adapt to the changing conditions leading up to the hit. But neither was Chara, he wasn’t in proper control, and lacked proper awareness so as to not injure Patches. And this is also true through either choice or inability to adapt to the changing conditions leading up to the hit. If a hockey player is responsible for their body and play, then they must also be responsible and accountable for what they do with it.

The only grey area, in my mind, comes up when we fully consider how truly physical hockey is. Hits are a part of that game. And what makes this a grey area, is that any hit rendered at any place on the ice can be completely innocent, completely normal, completely mundane as far as normal hockey hits go, but through tiny changes in position, speed, angle, genetics or anything else, one player could drop to the ice with a fractured vertebra. This brings is back to the point that you can’t punish consequences, you have to punish the action. So if the result of a regular old hockey hit is a broken jaw and bleeding, well, that’s life. And the difference between that and what Rome did is clearly that Rome’s hit is not a regular hockey hit. it’s a hit specifically prohibited by the rulebook. But Chara’s hit wasn’t a normal hit either, regardless of whether or not it’s called out in the rulebook.

So I guess to be as concise as possible, I can’t get around this question: We cannot ever actually know intent so we must remove it from the decision-making process. Given that, Rome’s hit is a hit prohibited by the rules, and as such should be punished regardless of the outcome (injury, etc.) But just because it’s not called out in the rules, why do we excuse Chara’s hit? To do so seems to argue that it’s okay to hit someone into a stanchion.”

And that’s where I get lost. I want to support my home player, because I’m a homer, and I want to dislike the opposition because that’s my job as a fan. But objectively, as someone who craves logic and analysis, how can you reach any conclusion other than ‘both should have been suspended.’ There’s variability in both the hit, and the perception of the hit from the league in their disciplinary choices. But logically, how can you reach the conclusion that they arrived at? I’m a homer, I love the Bruins. But I’m so uncomfortable with this.

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Comments
  1. Norm says:

    And your Dad loves you anyway

  2. ronald says:

    Hort’s vagina looked well healed as he hoisted that slightly sizable tin trophy tonight. He was even suited up!?

    Good cup win, October can’t come soon enough!
    r

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