Hockey, especially the NHL version, is a brutal sport. Bruins fans didn’t need a reminder of that, but they received yet another one last Saturday night when Chris Neil lined up a vulnerable Johnny Boychuk in Ottawa and sent him directly to No. 55 Silly Street.
Boychuk had his head down, the ultimate boo-boo, and Neil crushed him with a running hit to the chest, a targeted blow delivered with such force that Neil knocked the wind out of himself. One of those rare predatory hits when even the perpetrator paid a price.
Boychuk got the far worse of the deal. He somehow picked himself up and left the game under his own power - amazing, given that Neil used his 215-pound frame as a blunt-force instrument - and on Monday was officially diagnosed with a mild concussion.
Boychuk thus became another casualty of the game’s culture. By the rule book, Neil’s hit was clean, and therefore he was not assessed a penalty. We were left to say yet again: just a hockey play, big hit, clean, honest, spectacular.
So, what are we left to say about a sport that permits, even encourages, concussion-inducing hits? Again, brutal sport, full of peril on every shift, dangerous for hitter and hittee, which in part is what pulls fans into 30 arenas around North America, willing to pay ever-escalating prices.
As the violence grows, the prices move in lockstep. Staged violence is a pretty good business model, has been for a while, especially when shrunk for the TV screen and not really there to be felt, internalized.
Four nights after Neil’s smackdown, a similar hit (though less menacing and not nearly of the same force) touched off an amusing on-screen tete-a-tete between ex-Bruin Mike Milbury and fellow Bay Stater Jeremy Roenick. At issue was a corner collision between Dallas’s Eric Nystrom and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, the very talented defenseman who helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009.
A puck was up for grabs in Pittsburgh’s end and Nystrom, rather than make a play for the puck, opted to deliver a high body blow that leveled Letang. As Letang lunged toward the puck, Nystrom dropped him with a glancing shot of his upper arm across the face.
Previously concussed this season, Letang was done for the night and diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms. Nystrom received a two-minute minor for roughing. All in all, a garden variety hit by today’s NHL standards - I was surprised Nystrom received even two minutes - but it served as prime beef for the Milbury-Roenick analysis menu in the NBC studio.
The surprise in the debate was that Milbury, for decades among the game’s strongest proponents of fighting and hard hitting, strongly denounced Nystrom. Roenick, meanwhile, played the familiar blame-the-victim card, saying, “He put himself in a vulnerable position.’’
Milbury, the sensitive new-age guy, later countered by saying, “We have to change the way guys look at it . . . you are not supposed to decapitate.’’ Roenick followed by saying that sort of thinking ran the risk of taking hitting out of the game, and that Milbury is “getting soft.’’
Round and round we go, folks, but it’s encouraging that now even the game’s crustiest edge is finally recognizing that we have reached the “Houston, we have a problem’’ precipice.
Too many players are being dealt brain injuries. And while the reasons for concussions are many, too many are the result of what I’ve described here for years as the game’s seek-and-destroy culture that has been particularly prevalent since the NHL emerged from its 2004-05 lockout.
Big hits, delivered first and foremost to cause injury, are now deeply embedded in the game, and there appears to be no way out of it.
Of the two hits discussed here, I found the unpenalized Neil hit far more disturbing than the Nystrom smack. Both were nasty, both injurious, but Neil clearly recognized that he had Boychuk in a vulnerable position and took full advantage of it. Above all, he was hitting to hurt.
Again, it was a legal hit, straight on, high to Boychuk’s body and not to his head. It was also predatory. In the grand scheme of things, it meant nothing to the game, unless the object of playing hockey truly has changed from scoring more goals than the other team to recording more broken bones, separated shoulders, crippled knees, and cracked heads.
I know, it has all been said before in this space, which is why I’m not going to go through the full parade of horribles one more time. Brendan Shanahan, the ex-power forward who is now the league operative charged with the game’s mounting trash problem, has received big kudos here for better defining bad acts and punishing them. His dirtiest job in hockey remains a work in progress. He is making a difference, attempting to remedy decades of indifference on the matter by his current bosses and scores of previous NHL suits.
What’s clear now - and again, let Milbury be the parakeet-in-the-coal-mine indicator - is that the players have to stop pointing to club owners and league bosses to fix their problem. Why are players getting hurt? Because (light bulb!) they are the ones inflicting the hurt.
Checking does not equal assault. Checking does not equal intent to injure. Checking is not free license to maim, concuss, debilitate, destroy.
And though the mayhem may sell, for both the arena and TV crowds, logic says it is a fractured model in desperate need of repair. It is literally beating skill and talent (thy face is Sidney Crosby) out of the NHL, and I have seen first-hand that it causes young players and their parents to seek alternative sports.
No telling if the NHL, like Apollo 13, will find its way safely back to a good place. I hope it happens. The game has always had its issues of violence and injury, but never to the point where speed and force, intimidation and intent to injure, overwhelmed the skill, grace, and magic of a beautiful game.
By my eye, that’s where it is now, and to the players I am only left to say, heal thyselves. Because the owners, managers, coaches, and customers seem only too happy too watch you self-destruct.
MESSAGE OF ACCEPTANCE
Project honors Burke’s memory
Keep an eye out during NBC’s broadcast of the Bruins-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden this afternoon for public service announcements heralding the start of the “You Can Play’’ project.
Formed to honor the memory of former Xaverian student Brendan Burke, who was killed in a car accident just over two years ago, the aim of You Can Play is to help amateur and pro athletes of all levels to be open about their sexual orientation and be accepted by their teams and teammates.
“The message is pretty simple,’’ said Patrick Burke, a Flyers scout and Brendan’s brother. “If you’re good enough to play, then that’s all that matters. It shouldn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, bisexual, whatever . . .
“If you’re good enough to be on the team, you’re a valued, welcomed member and you can feel comfortable being who you are, period.’’
Patrick and Brian Burke, Brendan’s dad and general manager of the Maple Leafs, were the leaders in forming You Can Play. Some three dozen NHL players have signed on to help, some of whom you’ll see in the PSAs. Later this year, You Can Play will release its “playbook,’’ designed to help fans, coaches, players, and administrators better understand the issues of gay athletes.
“The response we’ve received from the athletes has been a little overwhelming, frankly,’’ said Patrick. “Knowing hockey players as I do, that’s not really a surprise, I suppose.
“But these guys have really stepped forward. Some of the biggest names in the sport. If you made a team out of these guys, you’d be among the Cup favorites.’’
To date, the NHL has yet to have one of its players say publicly that he is gay. Patrick Burke’s belief is that it is probably not far away.
“And I’d like to think You Can Play will help facilitate that,’’ he said. “I expect you’ll see an openly gay player in the NHL in the next couple of years.’’
CHERRY: THE SEQUEL
More squeezed out of Grapes
Because the world needed another one, CBC tonight starts to air its second movie about Don Cherry, this one titled, “The Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story, Part 2.’’
There was so much ground to cover in the redux that Part 2 runs across two weekends, concluding next Sunday. The first one, “Keep Your Head Up, Kid,’’ drew 1.3 million viewers. In the United States, the equivalent would be roughly 13 million.
Grapes, who turned 78 last month, really went mainstream last night when he officially opened his Twitter account (CoachsCornerCBC) prior to fulfilling his TV duties. The ex-Bruins coach says he doesn’t carry a cell phone, but with help from CBC associates, he is now parceling out his thoughts in 140 characters or less.
The Toronto Star’s Raju Mudhar authored a piece in advance of the movie, and Cherry revealed a different side of himself, opining that there were a few parts of his life he would have lived differently.
“I was a very selfish person,’’ he told Mudhar, “and I only thought of myself. I should have taken the family out more, to Disneyland and stuff like that. My whole life was hockey.’’
Regarding his latter point, Cherry added that he wished he had extended his formal education. His final days in the classroom were spent in eighth grade, on the back side of World War II.
“I would have gone to school,’’ he said, noting the few career options that existed when his playing days came to a halt in his early 30s. “Either that, or I would have got a trade.’’ Fitting for a guy who added, “I consider myself a construction worker who got lucky.’’
Canucks go for some toughness
The biggest deal at Monday’s trade deadline had the Sabres and Canucks flipping star freshmen, with 6-foot 3-inch Zack Kassian heading to Vancouver and the speedy Cody Hodgson headed to Buffalo. Once on the Boston radar as a “most wanted’’ first-round pick, Kassian could turn into that brute force the Canucks have lacked on the wing since Todd Bertucci’s departure. Hodgson can scoot and shoot, but was somewhat lost on the Canucks’ depth chart, with skill enough to play in the top six but not always the opportunity. The bet here is that Kassian gets the better start out of the gate, if for no other reason than the tide of talent runs higher in Vancouver than it does in Buffalo. The Sabres, trying desperately to avoid being a playoff DNQ for the third time in five seasons, lack size and jam among their forward corps. And not that he was delivering much of that jam, but 6-5 pivot Paul Gaustad had some of it and was very good at faceoffs (57 percent), and he was dealt to Nashville for a first-round pick.
Bruins targeted Spacek
The Bruins ended up with a solid player in acquiring shot-blocking blue liner Greg Zanon from the Wild, but they also made a solid play for 38-year-old Czech defenseman Jaro Spacek. Word is, the Hurricanes’ asking price was too high, possibly a second-round pick that the Bruins wouldn’t be able to deliver until the 2013 draft. Just think: Had the Bruins written the same outrageous deal for Tomas Kaberle that the Hurricanes handed him in July, then maybe Boston, and not Carolina, could have pawned him on Montreal to bring in Spacek during the season. Either way, a close pal of Spacek’s says that he would have loved the opportunity here in the Hub of Hockey. On target to be an unrestricted free agent July 1, perhaps he will get his chance.
A shot at blocking
Is shot-blocking a good thing? On the whole, yes, but it’s also often an indication that clubs spend too much time parked at the wrong end of the ice. As of Friday morning, the top three shot-blocking teams were the Islanders (1,099), Minnesota (1,067), and Montreal (1,061). None is expected to make the playoffs. Next in line: the Rangers (1,029) and San Jose (1,014). The Blueshirts have been vying with Detroit for the No. 1 spot in the league’s overall standings and the Sharks have been, well, the Sharks, recently going 3-6-1 over 10 games and flirting with falling into DNQ land. All in all, a tough stat to read. But one thing is for certain: The greater the number of blocked shots, the greater chance of injury. The Rangers have turned shot-blocking into a cult happening this season, but the buy-in has been so great it leads to questions as to whether they’ll remain healthy enough to live through four grueling rounds of the playoffs.
Wheeler on a roll
Ex-Bruin winger Blake Wheeler, dished out of here with Mark Stuart last February in the Rich Peverley deal, is on a career hot streak with the Jets, delivering almost 2 points per game over the last two weeks (eight games, 4-11-15). He is on a pace for around 65 points, well above the career-best 45 he totaled here in his 2008-09 rookie season. Riding most of the time these days with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd, Wheeler looks far more confident on his skates and going to the prime scoring areas. Wheeler’s Wellesley-based agent Matt Keator: “He’s a talented kid, so I can’t say I’m all that surprised it’s come together for him. The best part right now is his consistency, keeping those points coming, and I think that’s a reflection of adjusting to a new environment - a new place to live, a new coach, all of that. He’s getting 20 minutes-plus of ice time a night with the team’s top players, and that’s helped his production, too. I think he’s figured out that he is a playmaking winger who can make everyone around him better.’’
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli last Monday dismissed any suggestion that he considered dealing star defense prospect Doug Hamilton for immediate help with the varsity. It’s all but a fait accompli that the 6-5 Hamilton, who will turn 19 in June, will start the 2012-13 season in Boston, allowing the club an initial look to determine whether he is ready or needs to be returned to junior - the way the Jets this season got their seven-game sampler of center Mark Scheifele before shipping him back to the Barrie Colts. At last look, Scheifele had 22 goals and 55 points with Barrie, in lockstep with his production last season that had the Jets picking him No. 7 overall in the draft . . . OK, you’ve heard it here before, but 26-year-old Swedish pivot Carl Soderberg is hinting yet again that he might like to come to Boston’s training camp in September. He moved up to Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League for the start of this season, and was at 13-18-31 through 40 games, second in team scoring. According to Chiarelli, the Bruins would welcome him in camp, but the GM is cautious about setting his September depth chart just yet. Soderberg, 6-3 and 200 pounds, was acquired from the Blues for goalie Hannu Toivonen in July 2007 and thus far has balked at all opportunities to come over here . . . Ex-NHLers Niclas Havelid and Fred Norrena also play for Linkoping . . . Mammoth defenseman Boris Valabik, acquired by the Bruins as part of the Peverley deal last year, signed with the Penguins as a free agent in July . . . Boston draft pick Yuri Alexandrov (No. 37 in 2006) switched KHL teams this year from St. Petersburg to Omsk. He remains Boston property, but indications are that the 6-foot defenseman has fallen off the club’s radar and likely will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.