Imagine if it were Duncan Keith or Nicklas Lidstrom instead of a rookie defenseman trying to impress the Detroit Red Wings bearing down on a streaking Ben Smith for a one-on-one play.
What would the Norris Trophy winners have done?
Keith and Lidstrom could have used a poke check, but they also likely would’ve made some contact. So, in a way, Brendan Smith did what he was supposed to do. The league wants physical play, and, of course, Brendan Smith doesn’t want Ben Smith to get to his goalie unabated.
The problem was the contact Brendan Smith made was directly to Ben Smith’s head. As a result, Ben Smith is day-to-day with a concussion, and Brendan Smith likely will be suspended.
“You can hit him, but you could’ve hit the shoulder on shoulder,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. “You try to poke. You try to do both. One-on-one, you want to play the body, but the first part of contact [can’t be the head].
“You have to make sure that’s part of the mind-set. I still don’t think 20 or 30 years ago you target the head in a situation like that. You try to hit the guy. You try to get contact. But it’s hard to have the first part of contact being the head.”
After a hearing Thursday, new NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan will decide Friday whether Brendan Smith could’ve avoided the head-high hit, while taking into consideration whether Ben Smith put himself in a vulnerable position immediately before or at the time of the hit.
Wings coach Mike Babcock seemed to argue the latter after Wednesday’s game. But the officials handed Brendan Smith a match penalty, which, according to NHL rules, “the referee, at his discretion, may assess if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head.”
Like Quenneville said, though, the hardest thing on Shanahan’s table is changing the mind-set as head injuries get more attention in all sports. It’s getting players to think twice before delivering hits.
The NHL always will want fast and physical play, which it definitely got when the lockout eliminated all the clutching and grabbing of the past. Shanahan, meanwhile, has taken an aggressive approach to penalizing illegal hits to the head this preseason, issuing video explanations and suspending seven players already. The players, though, have to change themselves.
“It seemed like when I first broke into the league, you would hit hard, but if a guy was in a vulnerable spot, you would ease up,” veteran Sean O’Donnell, 39, said. “And now it seems like some of the guys, when guys are in a vulnerable spot, their eyes light up. I don’t know where this mind-set came from. I’m not saying that about [Wednesday’s] hit. I’m talking about in general.
“Some of that self-respect for your fellow teammate, fellow NHLer or human being doesn’t seem to be there. I’m not sure why, but we do need to eliminate this because those brain injuries are dangerous things.”
Daniel Carcillo is one of many players who make their living by being physical. But he has found himself “thinking” during hits.
“I’ve got to play the way I’ve got to play,” Carcillo said. “Guys like us, it’s kind of inevitable that maybe something might happen or it’s going to be close. There’s times I find myself thinking before I make a hit, that ‘I can’t do that, slow down.’ It’s a tough way to play the game, but that’s the way it’s got to be played right now.”
And it isn’t easy.
“A lot of guys, that’s their game: hitting, finishing every check and being physical,” winger Bryan Bickell said. “I know if you’re going 100 percent and you’re about five feet away, it’s hard to get down to at least 80 percent. You’ve got to be smart, and you’ve got to pick your hits. But you can’t really take your game out of [your] control and not hit at all.”