FLUTO SHINZAWA | ON HOCKEY
Jim Davis/Globe staff
David Backes is sorry Frans Nielsen is hurt. When Backes sideswiped Nielsen in the first period of Tuesday’s 6-5 overtime win, the entry velocity of the 221-pound forward dropped the Detroit center like a bag of flour. Nielsen is out, most likely with a concussion. It is the one injury the league would desperately like to all but eliminate, for good reason. Brain trauma is no joke.
“First and foremost, the fact that Frans Nielsen’s hurt [stinks],” said Backes on Thursday, prior to the first of three games he will miss for the hit. “I wasn’t intending to hurt him. I hope he has a quick and full recovery and he’s back on the ice soon. That’s certainly an unintended consequence to the play. The play’s kind of an awkward, one-off play where he’s coming back in the zone, receiving the puck, sees me coming. I’m going to finish a hit, trying to get around him. By the end, I’m trying to abort the whole thing altogether to just avoid it all.”
Backes considers the incident an aberration. By the count of Wade Arnott, Backes’s agent, his client had delivered 2,400 hits over his 848-game career. Prior to Tuesday, the NHL did not consider any of them worthy of supplemental discipline.
Backes had no ill intentions, even if the hit’s consequence turned out poorly for Nielsen. The only fallout Backes expected, accepted, and respected was Jonathan Ericsson’s invitation to fight in the next period, not the league raiding his paycheck for $96,774.18.
“If it’s personally trying to change my game, I think if there’s one error in 2,400 hits, by the time we get 2,400 more hits, I’ll be long out of the game,” Backes said. “I’m going to keep playing my style. I’ve been able to do it cleanly, effectively, hard-nosed, stand-up. We’re getting in the way from policing ourselves. The next guy asks me to fight from their team, a big character. I oblige and answer the bell. That used to count for something too. That’s kind of being phased out, and seemingly more as we go along.”
That’s too bad.
Backes’s punishing style makes people watch. He finishes checks as hard as anybody. TD Garden customers rose from their seats when Backes and Ericsson ditched their gloves to aim hits that were far more intended for each other’s heads than the one inadvertently delivered to Nielsen’s.
Tooth-loosening checks and fights are going out. This should translate to better health for hockey’s inhabitants. But it will worsen the condition of the sport itself — one that stands apart from others because of its speed and ferocity. Under such conditions, head injuries are unfortunate but unavoidable consequences.
The NHL is in the entertainment business. The sport’s customers enjoy physical play. The NHL Department of Player Safety is compromising the former by deemphasizing the latter.
Even if Backes pledges not to alter his game, other players might disagree. Being suspended for three games with a clean history is no joke. A $100K fine is a lot of dough missing from a player’s wallet. The league’s crackdown on head injuries will have many players thinking twice about throwing a check and mistakenly belting somebody in the squash. The financial risk is too steep, especially when coaches are emphasizing stick skills over roughhousing.
For a defender intent on separating an opponent from the puck, his stick is a better tool than his shoulder. Zdeno Chara’s reach, for example, makes a stick-on-puck maneuver a quicker and more efficient method of gaining possession.
It does not matter that Chara is the strongest player in the league. If he waits until an opponent enters his perimeter so he can muscle him off the puck, that’s an additional instant in which something bad could happen.
“If you’re in the neutral zone, it’s usually stick on puck,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “It’s tough to finish checks in there until you get them in that hit zone by the penalty box where D are dumping it in. For the most part, there’s a little more room. Stick on puck is usually what creates contact on a forecheck. If you have a good stick to puck, you can’t move it. Eventually you run him out of room, so that would come first. In the D-zone, stick on puck is very important because of quick plays into the slot or toward the danger area can really hurt you. So that one’s stressed more than anywhere.”
Cassidy knows there is a movement away from rough stuff, partly because of game play, but also because of manpower. He has two examples on his blue line: Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk, both 5 feet 7 inches. If Grzelcyk, the more finesse-oriented of the two, does not wield his stick well, he is out of work.
“He won’t survive if he’s not good stick to puck. He just won’t,” Cassidy said. “He can’t get in to those physical battles every night. Every team has two or three of those guys now.”
Personnel and strategy were already shifting the NHL away from physicality and toward speed, quick thinking, and sharp stickwork. The league’s disciplinary surveillance program is now a factor too. It makes little sense for a player to jeopardize his paycheck and his lineup spot by initiating contact and having something go wrong with the hit.
The league will suffer as a result.
The NHL is trying to influence behavior by being liberal with its discipline. It is understandable and commendable that the league thinks ill of hits to the head.
The trick the NHL is trying to execute is endorsing physical but safe play. These variables are not congruent. The NHL is dangerous. It’s part of the reason people watch.
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