It was Tkachuk’s willingness to punish a vulnerable, engaged opponent as he came around the net that had the NHL’s head offices quietly concerned, while current players, former players and ex-referees on Twitter were unanimous in condemning the hits.
“I was a hitter,” said former NHLer Scottie Upshall, from Lugano, where he plays in the Italian League. “It’s a malicious hit that they’re trying to take away.”
The hit Upshall and others were referring to is that play where a winger leaves his defensive position to check a player who is circling the net with the puck, usually already engaged by a checking defenceman. It’s a trademark hit of former players like Raffi Torres, Colby Armstrong and Matt Cooke, who used it to concuss opponents, and a hit that helped give birth to Rule 48, a specific rule meant to eliminate “blindside, lateral hits.”
“The net acts as an obstacle on the ice. They can’t see you leaving your point, coming down to smoke you,” Upshall said. “I did that in the playoffs once against Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh. I knocked him out. It is as dirty as it can get. If you take four strides away from your position (guarding) the D-man, you’re playing old-time hockey.
“You’re trying to kill the guy.”
Although no penalty was assessed, and the Department of Player Safety OK’ed the three Tkachuk hits on Kassian, long-time referee Paul Stewart weighed in on Twitter:
“A hit that isn’t technically illegal isn’t automatically a clean hit or a good hockey play,” he tweeted. “When a winger runs out of position to, from above the goal-line, body-check an already engaged opponent below the goal-line, it’s not good hockey.”
The NHL has, for years now, reached a point where it asks the hitting player to recognize when his target is vulnerable. The onus is on the hitter to avoid injury, in today’s NHL.
“There are places on the ice where you’re vulnerable, and that’s one of them — coming around the net,” said Edmonton winger James Neal. “You’re focused on the puck, you’re engaged in a battle with someone else.
“The fact that he said, ‘Stay off the tracks,’ I don’t understand it. Those aren’t the tracks. A guy is taking a (rimmed puck) off the wall and taking it the net with a guy on him, those aren’t the tracks. I could do that almost every shift if I wanted.”
It is considered bad form to take advantage of any opposing player who is already engaged with an opponent, coming in as a “third man in” and levelling a player whose attention is elsewhere.
Take the puck? Sure.
Hit him as hard as Tkachuk hit Kassian? That’s not cool anymore.
It is also known inside hockey how dangerous a play it is when the winger steps down to meet that player who is coming around the net, something Tkachuk did twice against Kassian without as much as even tapping the brakes.
“Why is that hit out of the game?” asked Neal, knowing the answer is because of all the injuries suffered in that scenario. “It’s changed for the last five years. It’s a gutless hit — a guy in a very vulnerable position — and it’s been out of the game for a long time.
“Raffi Torres, Steve Downie, those guys were getting 15-game suspensions and being done in the league for hits like that.”
Upshall could not believe that a player would take runs like that at Kassian and not be prepared to fight him afterwards. Tkachuk doubled down on that Monday, saying he feels no duty to honour Kassian with a fight, and would do the same thing again.
Most who have played the game would disagree — including Tkachuk’s teammates, said Neal, a Flames player last season.
“I’m sure they don’t think it’s the right play,” he said, chuckling at how someone would think they can throw dangerous hits like that with impunity. “You don’t see someone else in the league doing that, because they know they have to fight Kass. Am I going to see Looch (Milan Lucic) coming around the net, target his head and run 12 feet trying to kill him? No. Because he’s going to kill me.”
It is believed that Tkachuk received a call from the League on the hits in question, just to say that it is a hit that’s been removed from the NHL, and the league would rather it stayed that way.
“It’s a huge respect thing. You don’t see guys doing that to other guys, because they have respect for other guys,” Neal said. “There are places on the ice where you have to let up on guys. You’re in a vulnerable position there, coming around the net, focused on trying to make a pay, in a battle with a defenceman.
“I don’t really understand it.”