32 Thoughts: Trying to make sense of controversial hits in a physical league

Former NHL veterans Jamal Mayers and Luke Gazdic sound off on the recent trend of illegal hits around the league, including what's behind it and how the NHL can respond.

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So many of us romanticize what we grew up with, and I’m no different. Born in 1970, I have a thing for trucker-style hats, feathered Farrah Fawcett hair, Saturday Night Fever and the Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. (For a minute, I thought those robots were actually going to beat them.)

It also means I grew up loving a certain kind of hockey: high-scoring and not for the faint-hearted. That’s never going to change, although I recognize sensibilities definitely have. We understand so much more about long-term physical consequences, which means the audience accepts less when it comes to preventable injuries. 

Detroit captain Dylan Larkin and Columbus’s Erik Gudbranson were particularly vocal in the aftermath of a rash of dangerous plays and ugly results.

“How do you protect yourself?” Larkin told reporters on Tuesday. “Who’s protecting you? There’s a lot of (questions) in our sport right now.”

Gudbranson, one of several defencemen to take a punishing hit from behind on a puck race to the boards, was suspended for fighting Nick Cousins — the hitter — when Cousins wanted no part of the pugilism.  

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“That’s the most dangerous hit in hockey,” Gudbranson said on Luke Gazdic’s Mitts Off podcast. “Maybe a couple hundreds of seconds beforehand, I’m three feet (back of the boards) and bend my neck forwards. I’m in real deep (bleep).”

Not every hit was seen the same way, which is not necessarily wrong. Not every hit is the same, or even illegal. Over the years, the Department of Player Safety put together several video explanations — here’s one from Brendan Shanahan in 2013. But the fact that some were penalties, some weren’t, some were minors, some majors had players confused.

This would definitely be classified as an informal poll, but reaching out to several players during the past week unveiled two major themes: the responsibility of the hitter and that the only suspensions were given to players who retaliated. 

When I chatted with Gudbranson last week during the Blue Jackets’ trip to Toronto, he said one reason he was so angry with Cousins is he wouldn’t have approached the hit the same way. 

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“If I know that a player is that vulnerable, I try to initiate contact a little bit lower, with my hips,” he said. “And I’m not leaving the ice. He went high.”

There was agreement with Gudbranson’s overall point. Some hedged a bit, bringing up arguments ranging from “the game is fast, so there will be accidents,” “defencemen should be more aware of the positions they put themselves in,” and “what I can’t stand is players who intentionally put themselves in position to draw a penalty, especially in the playoffs.” 

There’s also a very legitimate belief that, if a defenceman bails on the puck or a forechecker doesn’t put in maximum effort, they’ll be labelled as soft or incapable of doing the job. 

Gudbranson added that, in his case, the angle of the dump-in made it even harder to figure out how to play the puck with Cousins coming hard. Several defencemen credited forecheckers with being better than ever at disguising their intentions. Some will hit you, some will go for your stick (thereby making it harder to safely play the puck), some will veer at the last second into a passing lane to make you look terrible by picking off your clearing attempt. So you have to process these options at high speeds and the wrong decision’s a disaster.

Several players pointed out there are “stop” signs on minor hockey jerseys so as not to hit between the numbers. One laughed, “Do we forget what stop signs mean when we’re old enough to drive?”

That said, with hitting decreased across minor hockey, more and more players are completely unprepared for what awaits them in the NHL. That goes double for Europeans making the transition from the bigger ice surface.  

But, overall, there is an agreement that all of this looks bad, not the highlights we want to be watching on our phones. One player said he thought about the heavy suspension to Pittsburgh Steeler safety Damontae Kazee — the rest of this season for “repeated violations of health and safety rules.” Others said the NHLPA should be taking a stronger stance at telling its players to be more aware of the line between honourably tough, and dangerous. 

It’s actually the second point — that Gudbranson and David Perron were suspended in retaliatory incidents — that stood out, because I hadn’t considered it. One player said there was a recent game where one of his teammates was hit hard, leading to a debate with the referees about the aftermath. 

“Sometimes we have to police things ourselves,” he said. “Not everything is a penalty or a suspension, and we have to handle it. I don’t disagree. But, both Gudbranson and Perron were suspended for doing just that.”

In Perron’s case, I think everyone agrees that while they understood what he wanted to do, he messed up and took it too far. He got the wrong guy and crosschecked him in the head. Considering his lack of history, he and the Red Wings were probably hoping for closer to four games. If Gudbranson doesn’t get suspended, it’s probably not much of a conversation, to be honest, but the fact he got a game for defending himself certainly raised eyebrows.

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The NHL doesn’t want Grand Theft Auto 6 up and down the ice, so you understand its point of view. But the players see it as another contradiction: police yourself, but not too much. 

Boston’s David Pastrnak and San Jose’s Jacob MacDonald received boarding majors and game misconducts last Saturday and Sunday, no doubt on-ice officials hoping those calls send a message.

Hopefully, that cools down the situation like a five-minute ice bath and we can move on.

As Gudbranson said following a lengthy skate the morning he served his one-game suspension: “I hate attention. I’d rather not be talking about this.”


1. One final note on the above topic: on the list of most respected by his peers, Chris Tanev is very high. One of the recent collisions — Ross Colton on Tanev — knocked him out three games, but was not labelled dirty by the majority I spoke to. A couple pointed out Tanev is “light,” that he’s simply not as physically powerful as other defencemen. Therefore, he takes more punishment, but does not back down from anyone and does not take the easy way out. There’s a ton of respect for him. Tanev returned in Monday’s 3-1 win over Florida, and blocked 10 shots. Of course he did.

2. There was an Olympic meeting on Wednesday, involving the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and IOC. Doesn’t sound like anything solved/agreed to, but, more importantly, no rain clouds. The word “productive” was used a few times. More conversations to come in January. I remain optimistic as part of my generally cheery nature. If the event cannot be played in Milan, it will go to Turin — home of the 2006 Olympics. (Switzerland also was suggested.)

3. Several European sources believe the NHL is eyeing the soon-to-be completed SAP Arena in Munich as a destination for games next season. Someone who recently toured it was raving about the facility, which will be the first owned and operated by Red Bull.

4. The NHL reached an agreement Wednesday with bankruptcy-addled Diamond Sports regarding television/streaming rights fees for approximately one-third of its US-based teams. According to a couple of sources, the renegotiated rates will see a decrease in what was owed, but are “much better than getting nothing at all.” One example: when MLB’s San Diego Padres received 80 per cent of what they were originally owed for the 2023 season.

As part of this agreement, Diamond’s NHL rights will be given back to the league in June. Teams are already eyeing alternatives, although The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Amazon is negotiating with Diamond about a partnership which could put all its NHL, NBA and MLB games on Prime Video. 

5. My late, great grandmother’s old line: “You plan, God laughs.” Ottawa’s new ownership/leadership planned to go through this season with Pierre Dorion and DJ Smith, learn the organization and make decisions after the season. The first-round pick penalty led to one change, four losses in a row to the other. Not what the Senators wanted on or off the ice.

Since Steve Staios will be running hockey operations no matter what occurs, I don’t know that it’s imperative they hire a GM before the coach, but I do think that’s the preference because you want a new manager to have input. Every hire is a big one, but the Senators recognize they cannot afford to swing and miss on their next coach. Ottawa’s identifying its young core: Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle, Shane Pinto, Drake Batherson, Jake Sanderson, Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun, probably Ridly Greig. You’ve got one hire to turn them into the E Street Band. 

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6. Someday I’m going to do the work on this, but a few managers have indicated there is statistical reason to believe a coach’s best results come with their second job. There are good candidates available now who would fit that profile. I’ve mentioned it a few times, but Staios and owner Mike Andlauer won their 2018 OHL championship in Hamilton with John Gruden, now at AHL Toronto. He’s spent six seasons as an NHL assistant.

7. One exec on the Senators under Jacques Martin: “I’m watching to see if he takes away ice time. I suspect that’s one thing they’re looking for.”

8. Brady Tkachuk leads the league in penalty minutes, headed for 225. No one’s had that many since Steve Downie’s 238 in 2014-15. (Last season’s leader, Pat Maroon, had 150.) Matthew Tkachuk’s career-high is 123. Keith’s was 255 during a different era, although after his sixth season, he never had more than 151. This is frustration, you know how much Brady cares. Whenever Ottawa’s down, the fuse lights. 

9. Remember: Rod Brind’Amour’s never given any indication he would want to leave Tobacco Road. But some teams looking for bench bosses will want to see how it plays out in Carolina. 

10. I know a lot of you are asking about Buffalo. I haven’t been very good lately on my coaching predictions. Plus, it is Christmas, and I’m no grinch. All I’d say is this: GM Kevyn Adams and head coach Don Granato tend to be very much aligned. They believe in their plan. One move that would indicate things have changed is if Devon Levi was sent to AHL Rochester for an extended period. They really believe in him and want him in the NHL, but I don’t think that’s unanimous across the organization. They made a promise when he turned pro, and don’t want to back away unless performance absolutely dictates. 

11. Minnesota is not in a rush to replace former assistant GM Chris O’Hearn, who “mutually parted ways” with the organization last week, and are prepared to stand pat. The Wild have one of the league’s leaner front offices, so there was speculation they’d work to add. Prior to last weekend, GM Bill Guerin was cleared to remain in his position based on what the investigations had uncovered — at that time.

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12. Colorado’s 10th in points percentage while navigating Cale Makar’s nagging injuries. Maybe not as high as they’d like, but nothing to panic about. That said, there’s been some surreal stuff: Mikko Rantanen upset with a teammate’s father (who later apologized) and Devon Toews saying, “We’ve got some guys in here that think they’re playing well and I think they’re kidding themselves,” after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss in Chicago.

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There was another occasion where Alexandar Georgiev, upset at being unintentionally screened on a goal, delivered a slight smack with the blade of his stick to talented young defenceman Sam Malinski. A team conversation followed, Georgiev owned the mistake publicly and privately, while Malinski shrugged it off.

What it says about the Avalanche: they have high standards and high expectations, never a bad thing; and when you are led by Nathan MacKinnon, who does not pull his punches on or off the ice — you have to be prepared for things to boil over from time-to-time. Gabriel Landeskog could turn down the temperature; he’s supposed to resume skating but a return to the lineup is hard to predict. 

13. The Avalanche expect a serious run at a second Stanley Cup in three seasons, and are trying to set a tone. The concern is depth. Rantanen (22:37), MacKinnon (also 22:37) and Valeri Nichushkin (21:17) are tied for first and seventh in ice-time per game among forwards. Only one other team (Toronto) has three in the top 20, and William Nylander is 20th. Trading Tomas Tatar to Seattle (a need for the Kraken) opened up some space, and everyone’s wondering what Colorado will do with it. One target is believed to be Calgary’s Elias Lindholm. He’s exactly what they need, but that might take time. The Avalanche still face a cap crunch, although no one believes they will stand pat. 

14. Detroit indicated it wasn’t looking to move any of its goalies, then lost two via injury. Carolina’s looking at all options. Great to hear that Frederik Andersen is making progress, but several sources warned to be careful about any timeline because it is still uncertain. Cap-tight Los Angeles is looking for organizational depth, comfortable with David Rittich backing up Cam Talbot. Rittich came within 1:19 of a shutout against San Jose. Elvis Merzlikins was a scratch last Saturday and backed-up Daniil Tarasov during Columbus’s 9-4 beatdown of Buffalo on Tuesday. He’ll start Thursday against Washington. There’s potential for a move, but probably not until the offseason. Montreal’s got three, and is willing to listen, while Toronto’s thrilled Martin Jones cleared waivers at the start of the season.

15. Maybe things will be different when the cap opens up a bit next season, but teams and agents are wondering if there will be a bigger squeeze on goalies — particularly backups. Antti Raanta cleared at $1.5M, and I’m not convinced Eric Comrie would be any different at $1.8M.

16. Toronto knows exactly what it will cost to tweak their defence. Now, they’re considering what else they might wish to do. Meanwhile, Auston Matthews is on-pace for 71 goals, with 21 of them coming in only nine different games.

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17. One of the post-Christmas questions will be when Dallas decides to manoeuvre its way into bringing up the AHL’s two top scorers — Mavrik Bourque (37 points) and Logan Stankoven (35). The two had a ridiculous performance in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime defeat of Grand Rapids. Bourque had all four goals and Stankoven three assists. I confess I haven’t seen enough of them, but I understand AHL Texas wisely is doing what it can to expose them to more defensive responsibility, such as the penalty kill. One opposing AHL coach, asked about these two, laughed and said, “I can’t wait to be rid of them.” The Stars need cap room to bring them up. 

18. St. Louis ran up the phone bills, hopefully Missouri has unlimited texting. The Blues tried to do something to shake-up their group before making the coaching change. 

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19. Seattle, which beat the Kings on Wednesday, has shown no desire to sell-off. The Tatar acquisition is proof of that.

20. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s asked around about defence. 

21. The Penguins’ 7-0 loss in Toronto ruined Kyle Bukauskas’s opportunity to tell a good Sidney Crosby story. After the practice last Friday, the two were discussing equipment, with Crosby revealing that he’s experimenting with a new curve in practice. He’s modified things a bit over the years, but never anything too drastic. The team’s equipment staff was very loyal to its captain, not giving away much, but this would be a significant change, should he go through with it. Apparently, it’s Jared McCann’s curve, as Crosby wants to be an even more dangerous shooter. He’s on-pace for 49 goals — proof the greats are never, ever satisfied. 

22. Crosby’s got his patented “slap” face-off move, a forehand whack at the puck that’s very difficult to beat. Columbus’s Adam Fantilli had one draw against Crosby and said, “I thought I was ready for it.” How did it go? “I lost,” he laughed. Fantilli added that Vincent Trocheck really impressed him. He’s second in the league at 63.6 per cent. 

23. There was legit concern when Kyle Connor went down, but Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Gabe Vilardi have 25 points in their past four games. Last season, Scheifele set a career-high in goals (42). Now, he’s en route to a career-high in assists (on ace for 58) and points (90). Ehlers, at current rates, would set a new personal points mark (66).

24. Familiarize yourselves with Tate McRae, if you haven’t already. She was at the Flames game last weekend and rode a Zamboni in her recent video “Greedy.” McRae’s got “All-Star Weekend celebrity captain” written all over her. Plus, your kids (and mine) think she’s much cooler than we are. By 100 million miles. 

25. People who know Nolan Patrick much better than me say he does whatever he can to avoid attention. He politely declined to speak by phone on Wednesday, but did text he has not made any decision regarding his future. In the meantime, he is doing video work with a few young players. Hope he’s doing well and always nice to hear a professional providing wisdom. 

26. I use November 1, many of you prefer American Thanksgiving, but here’s another one. A statistical genius informed me that 85 per cent of teams in playoff position on Christmas Eve make it. Three did not in 2022-23: Calgary, Pittsburgh and Washington.

27. Didn’t realize this, but out of the November GM meetings came a crackdown on faceoffs, specifically wingers and/or defencemen encroaching the circle. Centres were getting kicked out because of it for a couple of weeks before things cooled down. We will see if this continues.

28. Player from overseas teams are watching: Vasily Atanasov from KHL Torpedo. Smallish, but can score (38 points in 38 games). Still under contract for another season, but there’s interest.

29. Since the NHL started counting ice-time in 1997-98, only one rookie defenceman’s averaged more than Brock Faber’s current 24:21. That was Tobias Enstrom, who played 24:28 a night for the 2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers. Enstrom, 23 at the time, had played four professional seasons in Sweden before arriving in North America. Faber, 21, is 38 games into his pro career.

30. Rookie defencemen who averaged 0.55 points per game in the salary-cap era: Quinn Hughes (0.770); Shayne Gostisbehere (0.70); John Klingberg (0.62); Moritz Seider (0.61); Adam Fox, Dion Phaneuf, Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Werenski (0.60); Tyler Myers (0.59); vodka salesman Ryan Whitney (0.56). Anaheim’s Pavel Mintyukov is at 0.55 and New Jersey’s Luke Hughes at 0.53. Hughes is no surprise. In the words of one amateur scout: “Mintyukov is only a surprise because you weren’t paying attention.”

31. Bobby McMann, 27, scored his first NHL goal last Saturday against Pittsburgh, almost four years after finishing his NCAA career at Colgate. It took him three days to get through all of the congratulatory messages. Asked if one stood out, he said a current Marlie told him seeing that goal inspired him to keep trying to get to the NHL. McMann didn’t want to reveal who it was, although he laughed when David Kampf (in the next stall) tried to guess. 

32. Not sure what next week’s going to look like, so I wanted to write a little about the Professional Women’s Hockey League. It stole one great Sportsnet employee, with Cassie Campbell-Pascall announcing Monday that she’s leaving us for an advisory role. Obviously, I’m rooting for success. It’s time, and any new audience is good for the sport.

Players and league executives will ring the Opening Bell at the New York Stock Exchange next Friday, with the great Billie Jean King rumoured to perform the ceremonial face-off at the league’s debut, Jan. 1 at Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. Ottawa’s opening game the next day against Montreal is trending at 8,000 tickets sold, which would be the largest professional women’s game ever. That’s a dynamite start, there’s a lot of excitement around it.

I’ve spoken to some who are worried things seem a little rushed — the jerseys, in particular, didn’t get great reviews — but the merchandise sold well, proof of the demand and desire. There’s a quiet confidence that once the league gets going and gains momentum, a lot of questions will answer themselves. 

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