Bob Clarke has become the voice of reason in the debate over headshots and ugly hits that is dominating conversation about the game of hockey.
Clarke, who went by Bobby when he was a whacking and hacking point machine with the Philadelphia Flyers (aka the Broad Street Bullies) back in the day, has been telling people that the puck has become irrelevant.
And he is correct.
Players today are more concerned with eliminating an opponent than they are with gaining possession of the puck. And, hey, if that opponent gets injured, well, gee, hockey is a physical game.
But there are times — hello there, Matt Cooke! — when you wonder if hockey isn’t on its way to becoming UFC on skates.
You watch as forward Daniel Paille of the Boston Bruins launches himself at Dallas Stars winger Raymond Sawada and you notice that the puck is right there, three or four feet in front of Sawada. However, Paille ignores it. That’s because the name of the game far too often is to try to separate the opposing player from his head rather than the puck.
And there is Cooke, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. One night he is initiating knee-to-knee contact with Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. A couple of nights later, he is launching himself at Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Fedor Tyutin.
(Remember when Cooke played for the Vancouver Canucks and everyone loved the Cooker? That doesn’t seem to be the case any more as the Twitterverse lit up with Cooke-related vitriol on Wednesday.)
We saw it right here in Kamloops on Friday night when defenceman Brandon Manning of the Chilliwack Bruins went in on the forecheck and hammered Blazers defenceman Austin Madaisky.
Manning had dumped the puck into Madaisky’s corner and, as the Kamloops defender turned, Manning streaked across the zone. Manning, completely ignoring the puck, initiated contact and that momentum spun Madaisky around, which meant he crashed awkwardly into the end boards, his back taking the brunt of the impact.
This wasn’t a case of one slug hammering another. Manning, 20, has signed a free-agent deal with the Flyers. In his three WHL seasons, the Prince George native has become known as an offensive defenceman who won’t shy away from the rough stuff.
Madaisky, 18, was a fifth-round selection by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2010 NHL draft and arguably has been the Blazers’ best defenceman.
That isn’t the case any longer, however, as Madaisky came out of that collision with a fractured C-7 vertebrae and won’t play again this season. He is fortunate that he still is able to walk.
Colin Campbell, who doles out discipline on behalf of Gary Bettman’s NHL, suspended Paille for four games. Coincidentally, Cooke also drew a four-game suspension.
Richard Doerksen, who is the WHL’s disciplinarian, handed Manning a seven-game suspension.
Men like Campbell and Doerksen are charged with a huge responsibility. They want to be fair and, at the same time, they want to make the punishment fit the crime.
That being the case, the time has come for them to lower the boom.
Four- and seven-game suspensions simply aren’t enough when one player shows such a lack of respect for another.
In the first eight days of February, the WHL played 35 games over five nights. According to the WHL’s online scoresheets, referees handed out 15 minor penalties and one major for checking from behind. That doesn’t count other incidents, such as charging or boarding, during which players — like Madaisky — were put at risk.
It is time, too, to stop categorizing these hits as headshots, hits from behind, etc. They all are dangerous hits and should be treated as such.
Brad Hornung, then a centre with the Regina Pats, was hit from behind on March 1, 1987. Left a quadriplegic, he has been in a wheelchair ever since that horrific night.
I was covering that game for the Regina Leader-Post and can tell you that the check by Moose Jaw Warriors forward Troy Edwards wasn’t anywhere near as violent or as frightening as much of what we see today. In fact, it was more of a nudge in the back than a hit from behind.
But heaven forbid anyone should have to go through what Hornung and Edwards did in the aftermath of that hit. Yes, there were two victims that night; they and their families both experienced their own versions of living hell.
But it is obvious today that the message isn’t getting through. There are far too many of these incidents and it’s only been through a stroke of luck that no one has been seriously injured. Although you can certainly make a case that Madaisky, who now is wearing a cervical collar, was seriously injured.
Earlier this season, Doerksen suspended Tri-City Americans forward Brendan Shinnimin for 12 games for an ugly hit on Josh Nicholls of the Saskatoon Blades. Nicholls was left with a concussion and missed only one game because the Blades were in a soft spot in their schedule.
Defenceman Wes Vannieuwenhuizen of the Vancouver Giants drew a seven-game sentence after he drilled Chilliwack forward Robin Soudek from behind on Nov. 11. A concussed Soudek sat out four games.
It would seem then that (a) Manning got off rather lightly, and (b) the message simply isn’t getting through to teams and players.
The onus then is on Doerksen to up the ante. Sooner or later, he is going to have to drop a 20-game bomb on someone, or perhaps end someone’s season.
Please, Mr. Doerksen, do it before more seasons end the way Austin Madaisky’s did.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at email@example.com and gdrinnan.blogspot.com. You are able to follow him at twitter.com/gdrinnan)