Thursday, March 08, 2007

One Swing, Out!

The majority of readers who happen by these parts don't partake in the NHL. Hockey is, when looking at the big picture, the red-headed stepchild that doesn't get to go to the dance. Yet for me, despite my love for baseball, football and even basketball, the truth is that hockey -- even insignificant games early in the pro season -- can be more exciting than anything the "Big Three" sports have to offer.

Tonight, however, was a different story. Regional rivalries -- like the Yankees and Mets in New York, the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago, and the Rangers and the Devils (and the Islanders) in New York, permeate and flavor whatever otherwise vanilla aspirations early-season games may offer, resulting in a variety of memorable moments, some for reasons better than others.

Tonight's game between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders was a late-season game with significant playoff implications. As a result, the terse, palpable pressure that normally fills the ice and the stands, especially in a match-up between these two teams, was ratcheted up a notch or five.

So late in the game, when the Rangers' Ryan Hollweg checked the Islanders' Chris Simon (a former Ranger) into the boards, Simon returned to his feet and readied himself. When Hollweg spun back towards Simon to check him again, Simon suddenly snapped and swung his stick as if he was chopping down a tree. The shaft of his stick caught Hollweg in the mouth, dropping him instantly, and immediately the referees sprinted to Simon to insure he wouldn't be attacked by the balance of the Ranger players on the ice. They were a bit late, but managed to prevent further carnage.

Why is this such a significant incident in the otherwise storied history between these two teams?

For one, Chris Simon is -- not surprisingly -- known as a "goon." That means he is not on the ice per se for his skating, passing and/or shooting skills but instead for his proclivity and his skill in the art of beating the shit out of players wearing another team's sweater. The "art" -- if you will -- of fighting in hockey is alive and well, but for the wrong reasons.

Without going into too much detail, the game of hockey has and always will be policed by its players. That means that if a guy on their team hits a guy on your team in a way that most players consider a cheap shot, someone will return the favor and hit that player in a similar manner. It's the age-old notion of an eye for an eye, or two wrongs make a right. It doesn't make much sense, mind you; but there are plenty of occasions when the referees don't see marginal or line-crossing plays, and the players send messages to one another, player by player and team by team. The notion of violence begatting violence is never more present than on the ice during a typical NHL game. The thought process, however, is not to instill violence in the game, but rather prevent it with the threat of retaliation. Think power as its own deterrent, like the immense arms race which showed two sides -- Washington and Moscow -- building and arming so many nuclear weapons that each side painted itself into a corner. Hockey violence is the same; some guy takes advantage of a smaller player, and some other guy -- a team member of that smaller player -- will come along and do the same thing to the guy who took advantage of his teammates.

Why is all this valid? Because hockey has and accepted its own culture of retaliation and redemption. There's nothing finer than scoring a game-winner in overtime after some guy takes a whack at you and watches you score the winner from the penalty box.

Problem is, by inviting and condoning violence in the game, that means that sometimes players go too far. Like tonight.

Had Chris Simon's stick hit Ryan Hollweg about six to twelve inches lower, it could have damaged Hollweg's ability to breathe and might have very well killed him. And for what? For a relatively hard but clean body-check? After the game, when Chris Simon was interviewed, he acknowledged his action -- and the subsequent, instant removal of him from the game -- guaranteed he'd face a long suspension from the NHL. What had happened, however, if his clothes-line of Ryan Hollweg actually was fatal?

Any time I watch cartoon violence -- the Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote; Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd; the World Wresting Federation; or the Bobby Brown/Whitney Houston reality show -- it's designed to titilate but in a humorous, entertaining way. Seeing Chris Simon swing at Ryan Hollweg's head reminded me that all the clean hitting during the game are part of the game, and Simon's action was really repulsive. I've been on the receiving end of some of those types of cheap shots and dirty actions. I've gotten slew-footed, tripped, checked and hit with elbows and cross-checked into the boards, other players and the opposing goaltender. I've also returned the favor on occasion, although a guy on my old team, "Meat," used to insure no one messed with us, even though on occasion other teams occasionally did.

But seeing what I saw tonight reminded me that players who normally remain poised and in control aren't always able to bottle their emotions and know how their actions could not only injure but really hurt.

It's closer to the edge, if not over the edge completely.

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