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Check, Please Like it or not, hitting is the soul of hockey, and there's nothing like a resounding bodycheck to change the flow of a game or even the course of history

March 29, 1999
March 29, 1999

Table of Contents
March 29, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
1999 Baseball Preview

Check, Please Like it or not, hitting is the soul of hockey, and there's nothing like a resounding bodycheck to change the flow of a game or even the course of history

This compilation of greatest hits is not sold at any store. It's
a somewhat arbitrary collection, for how are hockey hits to be
judged? By number of bones rattled? On the Richter scale? Though
the NHL two years ago began keeping a statistic it calls a
"hit"--contact that "significantly impedes" a player's
progress--you can no more define the greatness of a hockey hit
with a stat than you can declare the Beatles' A Day in the Life
a classic because it is four minutes, 46 seconds long.

This is an article from the March 29, 1999 issue Original Layout

Hitting is the soul of hockey--"Take it out of the game, there's
nothing left," says Montreal Canadiens coach Alain
Vigneault--and those on the receiving end often describe it as
an out-of-body experience. In hockey, as in music, hits succeed
because of the impression they leave, which is why the
impression on Gary Dornhoefer's chest is the best place to start
the discussion. Big hits can change a shift, a period, a game, a
playoff series or even hockey history, as one that leveled
Dornhoefer in the 1976 Stanley Cup finals did.

The mid-1970s were the NHL's Dark Ages. A marauding gang of
Visigoths--O.K., the Philadelphia Flyers--ruled the sport,
winning two straight Stanley Cups before a lanky, frizzy-haired
Montreal Canadiens defenseman ushered in the Age of
Enlightenment with his right shoulder. Larry Robinson's historic
check on Dornhoefer, which propelled the Philly forward into the
wall, was so violent that the Forum boards broke. "Perfectly
clean hit," says Dornhoefer, who is now a Flyers broadcaster.
"The ref called a penalty on it, maybe because he felt sorry for
me. I was spitting up blood."

If Philadelphia had won a third consecutive Cup, the league
might have plunged into a prolonged period of
thuggery--imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in the
NHL--but the check, in the third period of Game 2, reinforced
the Canadiens' courage and carried them to a sweep. The pain in
Dornhoefer's chest lasted two weeks, but Montreal's victory
tipped the game back to a balance of fierceness and finesse that
prevails to this day.

"I remember the P.A. announcement that the game was being held
up to fix the boards, and I remember the crowd cheering, but
actually I didn't see a tape of the hit until 10 or 15 years
later at an awards banquet," says Robinson, now the coach of the
Los Angeles Kings. "I didn't realize I hit him that hard. I
guess the hit changed the series, but that's what hits are
supposed to do. They change the momentum. They elevate everybody
on your team."

The greatest hits also can be a personal statement, as was the
best hit ever landed before the second cup of morning coffee. A
few minutes after nine o'clock, roughly five seconds into the
first scrimmage of Team Canada's training camp for the 1991
Canada Cup, 18-year-old Eric Lindros rattled Al MacInnis, a
venerable defenseman, with a check so vicious that MacInnis
clambered to his skates in sections, like a punch-drunk
marionette. Lindros's hit was a non-verbal introduction, an
announcement that not only was he going to make himself at home,
but that he also wasn't planning to let anyone else touch the
remote control.

The bodycheck is also suitable for special occasions, such as
the Stanley Cup finals. In 1995, New Jersey Devils defenseman
Scott Stevens drove Detroit Red Wings forward Keith Primeau from
Game 1 with a debilitating check before delivering a Game 2 hit
that turned winger Slava Kozlov into a smear of cream cheese.
But memorable hits don't come only in the postseason. On the
first shift of the Kings' opening game of the 1998-99 season,
Norris Trophy winner Rob Blake separated the Edmonton Oilers'
215-pound Andrei Kovalenko from the puck and perhaps his senses
as Kovalenko broke into the Los Angeles zone with his head down.
Says Blake, "I was just starting to campaign for [another
Norris] a little early."

Then there is the check as contagion, as evidenced in Game 2 of
the 1986 Cup finals. With the Canadiens down a game to the
Calgary Flames, Montreal captain Bob Gainey ran amok. "It got to
the point where none of us wanted to touch the puck when Bob was
on the ice," recalls Edmonton assistant general manager Doug
Risebrough, then winding down his career with the Flames. "The
Canadiens were watching Bob, and pretty soon [Brian] Skrudland
started hitting and [Claude] Lemieux started hitting." Montreal
won that match and went on to win the Cup in five games.

Great hits carry no statistical weight but reverberate through
the decades like chants of "Potvin sucks," which are still
audible whenever the New York Islanders, Denis Potvin's former
club, or the Florida Panthers, the team for which he works as a
broadcaster, play at Madison Square Garden. Potvin was a
brilliant defenseman in part because he was a big hitter. He had
the gifts of strength and timing, a facet of hitting he polished
in his final year of junior hockey under coach Leo Boivin, a
squat, hard-hitting defenseman in the 1950s and '60s who
hip-checked his way into the Hall of Fame. Potvin was an expert
with his shoulders and his hips.

On Feb. 25, 1979, Potvin earned the eternal wrath of Garden fans
by laying out the Rangers' Ulf Nilsson. "I'd made that play a
thousand times," Potvin says. "A guy coming with speed, you
force him to the outside. We went shoulder to shoulder into the
boards, he turned to avoid the hit, and his ankle just got stuck
in a rut. Good check. Bad ice." An ineffective Nilsson returned
from a broken right ankle for two games of the Stanley Cup
finals, but New York lost to the Canadiens in five. In the mushy
logic of Rangers fans, a healthy Nilsson would have guaranteed a
Cup. "What really upset them is that the Islanders won the first
of four straight Cups the next year," Potvin says. "The Rangers
had a pretty good team in '79. Nilsson. Anders Hedberg. Phil
Esposito. Who knows? Anyway, one check started all that stuff."

Cam Neely was sitting around the house this winter, complaining
to his wife, Paulina, that his left shoulder hurt. Neely, a
powerful Bruins winger who could have walked downstairs from the
old Boston Garden to North Station after games and doubled as
the 11:08 express to Marblehead, couldn't remember doing
anything to hurt it. As he talked, it occurred to him that the
shoulder ached precisely because he hadn't done anything. "You
get so used to banging as a player," says Neely, who retired in
1996. "At the time you don't realize it hurts [your shoulder]."

The 6'1", 218-pound Neely was a classic shoulder checker. As he
crashed into victims on the claustrophobic Boston Garden ice, he
would stun them with his upper body. A smaller player, such as
5'11" Michael Peca of the Buffalo Sabres, a premier hitter who
is listed at 181 pounds but who midway through the playoff grind
looks as wispy as Kate Moss, uses his legs to generate force.

Hitting techniques are as personal as skating styles, but all
great hitters share one attribute. "They go through you, not to
you," says Ryan Walter, the Vancouver Canucks broadcaster who
played for three teams in 15 NHL seasons from 1978-79 to '92-93.
"Look at Lindros now, or the way Neely or Gainey played. There's
no hesitation in their stride when they're going to hit. Some
guys have to set their feet, which is like a train braking and
slowing. Then they have to use their arms, which diminishes the
force. You see more and more guys using arms now. But a Lindros
hit just washes right through. That's the kind of check that
brings people out of their seats."

That includes the paramedics. Lindros, the Flyers captain, laid
out Ottawa Senators forward Andreas Dackell like a $12.99
smorgasbord last October with a legal, last-rites hit against
the end boards that caused a concussion and two severe facial
cuts. The hit, like all great ones, changed the tempo
immediately: Ironically, it was the Flyers who were so shaken by
Dackell's injury that they allowed Ottawa to pump in three goals
when play resumed. The 6'4", 236-pound Lindros denied he was
bothered by the aftermath of the hit, in which Ottawa called for
a suspension--"What would they suspend Eric for, being big?"
mused Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke--but he scored
only two goals in the next six games.

Lindros is sensitive to other players' injuries, which is not
surprising when you consider that his brother Brett's career was
cut short because of postconcussion syndrome. Eric himself spent
a month in a fog last season after Pittsburgh Penguins
defenseman Darius Kasparaitis caught him with his head down
along the boards. Kasparaitis isn't the NHL's hardest hitter,
but he's surely the most persistent, coupling an almost comic
doggedness with that vanishing art form, the hip check. The hip
check might be superfluous (Colorado Avalanche assistant coach
Bryan Trottier says it isn't necessary in the modern game
because of neutral zone trapping); it might even be dangerous
(the notorious Bryan Marchment of the San Jose Sharks throws hip
checks in which he appears to be using his knee to attack an
opponent's knee, a hit that can easily cause injury); but it is
certainly spectacular. The hip-checking defenseman keeps a small
gap between himself and the puck carrier, suckering the forward
into trying to scoot through the opening. If the defenseman can
close the path with one stride, he gets his hip and rump into
the opponent, sending him up and over in a half Louganis.

"Most of the time, even if you just get a piece of [a player]
with a hip check, he's knocked off balance," says St. Louis
Blues defenseman Jamie Rivers, one of the NHL's few remaining
hip checkers. "So your partner or whoever's backchecking can get
the puck."

Bob Plager, the Blues' director of pro scouting and one of the
best hip checkers in the 1960s and 1970s, mourns the passing of
the craft the way some miss John Lennon. But the hits keep
coming. You just have to look a little harder for them.

The laws of physics suggest that with players getting bigger and
faster, bodychecking would be even more devastating. This is no
more true than the notion that greater amps automatically lead
to better songs. The consensus is that they don't make hits like
they used to, although hitting might not have disappeared so
much as migrated.

The train wrecks that used to occur in the middle of the neutral
zone have generally shifted to the boards, where the hitting is
more controlled and less punishing. "The style in the last three
or four years is much more conservative," says Toronto Maple
Leafs coach Pat Quinn. "There's not the same movement [with all
the trapping]. Now people stand still, so you don't get the
collision."

The neutral-zone trap that has been the foundation of defense in
the 1990s is rooted in angles and positioning, not wipeouts. The
defenseman is limited in his opportunity to chase big hits. Even
Stevens--notwithstanding that solid-gold hit on Kozlov--hasn't
been as devastating an open-ice hitter in New Jersey as he was
earlier in his career with the Washington Capitals and the
Blues. The modern bodychecker tries to hit the puck carrier in
such a way that if he misses, he won't be trapped behind the
play. "Position defense in hockey is almost like defense in
basketball now," says Vancouver coach Marc Crawford.

A player cedes position at his peril. The Phoenix Coyotes were
breaking in two-on-two against the Canadiens last December when
Montreal defenseman Igor Ulanov, a one-dimensional hitter, went
AWOL in search of someone to hit. Ulanov skated past the
oncoming rush to chase down a Coyote, giving Phoenix a
two-on-one. When he reached the bench, Ulanov and assistant
coach Dave King argued so vehemently that Alain Vigneault had to
tug on King's jacket to get him to stop. "It's a fine line,"
says Vigneault. "You want [big] hits because they can turn a
game, but you have to be smart. We don't stress the crushing
blow as much as we do taking a guy's hands away, separating him
from the puck."

"Open-ice hitting is big-time risky, a one-in-a-thousand play,"
Calgary defenseman Cale Hulse says. "If you're looking to get
those big hits all the time, there are going to be two-on-ones
and three-on-twos heading the other way. The guys are so fast
these days, and usually everybody's got his head up. Players
like [Chicago Blackhawks center] Doug Gilmour, they get the puck
and try to suck you in [to trying to hit them]. As soon as you
come, they chip it by you, and they're gone."

The newly conservative approach to bodychecking has been
reinforced by the NHL, which has cracked down on hitting from
behind and has suspended players who leap to deliver a check. "I
think there's starting to be a little leeriness about the big
hit because of some of the suspensions that have followed,"
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says. "I know Peca, after the hit on
[Vancouver defenseman Mattias] Ohlund last year"--Peca was
suspended for three games--"was a little leery. Let's be
realistic. If you're going to have a big hit, your feet will
probably leave the ice a little. If you time it wrong and leap
at a guy, that's an automatic suspension."

But inevitably the great hits will rock on. Whenever a puck
carrier has his head down, whenever a forward with more hubris
than quickness tries to hurtle down the boards, somebody will
nail him with a shot that makes the hitter tingle and the victim
feel as though his right shoulder blade is on the left side of
his body. The game changes, but its soul is eternal.

[BOX]

Big Boppers
Here are SI's rankings of the top 10 bodycheckers in the game
today.

1. Eric Lindros (above), Flyers
2. Scott Stevens, Devils
3. Darius Kasparaitis, Penguins
4. Rob Blake, Kings
5. Derian Hatcher, Stars
6. Keith Tkachuk, Coyotes
7. Igor Ulanov, Canadiens
8. Bryan Marchment, Sharks
9. Michael Peca, Sabres
10. Ed Jovanovski, Canucks

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY B. WINKLER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Lowering the boom The Devils' Krysztof Oliwa delivered a crushing blow along the boards to former Islander Bryan Berard.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Cleaning the glass Brad May of the Canucks made St. Louis's Bryan Helmer reflect on the nature of a helmet-popping hit.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLAB/W PHOTO: IMPERIAL OIL-TUROFSKY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME

Hitting the Heights
Here are SI's picks of the top 10 bodycheckers of all time.

Player Years Played

1. Leo Boivin (below), Bruins 1951-70
2. Denis Potvin, Islanders 1973-88
3. Bill Ezinicki, Maple Leafs 1944-55
4. Eric Lindros, Flyers 1992-
5. Larry Robinson, Canadiens 1972-92
6. Tim Horton, Maple Leafs 1949-74
7. Fernie Flaman, Bruins 1944-61
8. Cam Neely, Bruins 1983-96
9. Bob Plager, Blues 1964-78
10. Scott Stevens, Devils 1982-

After the check by Lindros, MacInnis clambered to his skates in
sections, like a punch-drunk marionette