By Stu Hackel
This doesn't happen very often in hockey, but in the wake of Thursday night's wild game in Boston, a player has spoken out critically about a teammate who delivered a blindside hit to the head. It's a rather remarkable development considering how teammates largely defend each other in hockey's often tribal culture, but what Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said speaks to just how seriously NHLers are taking the effort to eliminate headshots.
The perpetrator was the Bruins' Dan Paille, who has been suspended for four games for his blindside hit (above) on the Stars' Raymond Sawada. Ference's words carry extra weight and meaning because teammate, Marc Savard, was famously concussed last season by a blindside hit and is now possibly done for the year after sustaining another blow to the head.
Sawada reportedly suffered a broken nose and a separated shoulder from the hit. Here's Ference being interviewed after the game:
If you prefer not to wait a minute and 50 seconds until he gets to his relevant remarks, this is what he said: “I mean, it’s a bad hit, right? That’s what they’re trying to get rid of and you can’t be a hypocrite and complain about it when it happens to you, and say it’s fine when your teammate does it. So, it’s a hit they’re trying to get rid of. I mean you hear it from every player after they do it, and they feel bad, and it's same thing: I talked to Danny and he feels bad. It’s tough. That backchecking forward, to make those kind of hits now, it’s so hard to do it in a clean fashion with the new rules. So, it is what it is. He hurt the guy, and I’m sure he’ll have a little conversation.”
After that conversation, VP Mike Murphy of the league's Hockey Operations department said he factored Sawada's injury into his decision to suspend Paille, relieve him of $23,118.28 in salary, and make him ineligible for a quartet of big games against the Canadiens, Sharks and Red Wings (two). Ference also went on NHL Network and echoed his earlier statement, saying, "We gotta get rid of [hits like Paille's]. It's dangerous."
B's coach Claude Julien's remarks (video) were a bit more typical of how clubs react when one their players faces league discipline. Julien said that he respects what the NHL and GMs are trying to accomplish, and the call on Paille that the refs felt they had to make, but once the caveats were dispensed, he added that he thought Sawada (who he misidentified as Brad Sutherby) was leaning forward while trying to control the puck when Paille arrived with the intent of a shoulder-to-shoulder check. "I don’t know if Dan could have stopped or he could have done something different," Julien said. “I’m going to let the league look at it and I certainly support my player."
What Paille could have done, as Bob McKenzie pointed out this morning on Montreal Radio Team 990's "Morning Show," is play the puck. If you look at the video, around the 45 second mark, it would have been quite easy for Paille to just swoop in and take the puck as he came laterally across. But players have been instructed from the game's beginnings to play the man and not the puck, and that's a habit they are going to have to break. Plus, there was much bad feeling between the Bruins and Stars in this game and, with the stretch drive heating up and points becoming more precious, merely stealing the puck obviously wasn't the first thing on Paille's mind. That little mouse under Ference's right eye scampered onto his face thanks to a first period fight, but not one of the three bouts in the game's first four seconds...
These two teams don't like each other and, as Dallas TV announcers Ralph Strangis and Daryl Reaugh noted, they have a little history. The Stars last visited Boston in October 2008 and that game produced 146 penalty minutes.
Stagestruck: This game's front-loaded fisticuffs surely captured the attention of the hockey world. The Boston Globe led with the back story on the ill will between the Stars' Steve Ott and Gregory Campbell of the Bruins, the first pair on the fight card, which goes back to when Campbell played for Florida. "Fists-a-flying B’s go wild" read the headline in The Boston Herald. "There must be something in the chowder," wrote The Dallas Morning News' Mike Heika at the top of his story headlined "Brawl from the Bell." A stylized video of the first three fights and two goals became the lead story on NHL.com, punctuated by Bruins announcer Jack Edwards screaming query, "Thirty five seconds in! Three fights and a goal! Are ya having fun yet?"
Well, yes, the fans in Boston were having fun and, coming a day after a goalie fight which generated the buzz from Wednesday night into Thursday, it's clear that anyone who thought fighting was on its way out of hockey was mistaken.
Coming within a week of the news that 98 percent of NHLers polled said they believed fighting should remain in the game, this is a strong affirmation of that sentiment. What this does to the movement to ban staged fights that arose two years ago from the NHL's GMs is anyone's guess. "Even Ol' Mr. Truculence himself, Brian Burke of the Maple Leafs, did not seem adamantly opposed to massaging the otherwise sacrosanct NHL fighting rules that expressly punish the act -- five minutes, the occasional instigator and misconduct -- while tacitly legitimizing it," SI.com's Michael Farber recalled in October. "Anyway, in the past 18 months, the subject of staged fights vanished as utterly as Sammy Sosa's English did in front of Congress."
That happened because an effort led by former Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque caused the proposal to die quietly in front of the NHL Competition Committee. As the long road to Rule 48 reminded us, even limited changes to NHL rules ride a slow train.
Listen up: For those old school types who think the NHL is going in the wrong direction by cracking down on hits to the head, Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald offered some sobering words this week. The man with the legendary mustache told Greg Harder of The Regina Leader-Post, "The players today are bigger, faster, stronger, in phenomenal shape, more so than they were 15, 20 years ago. With the speed of the game and the size of the players and how quickly those gaps close out there, they need to take a long hard look at the equipment, even if they take a step backwards (with more padding).
"Now, just a glancing blow with the new, lighter, harder-than-a-table-top equipment, you'll end up with a concussion. That's a big worry. And the respect factor and what we are demonstrating and trying to get across to our young people because they emulate everything that happens in the pros.
"The NHL has a responsibility to push it down to junior hockey, down to midget hockey and all the way down," McDonald continued. "When you start losing the best players in the game, like a Marc Savard, like a (Patrice) Bergeron, like Sidney Crosby, for extended periods of time, holy God, get your head out of the sand, wake up. It is a tough game and they're trying to address it, but it seems like they waited too long.
"They have to move faster or the punishment has to be greater so those liberties can't be taken. I don't care who it is, whether you have kids of your own or family around you, this is not only a game, this is a life that you're dealing with."