Shane Doan. Dustin Brown. Milan Lucic. Brad Marchand. Antoine Roussel.
The list of polarizing players in the NHL is far longer than this — and I’m just naming players who are currently active in the league. Every generation has a list of players like this, and every level of talent has a list of players like this — you either love them, or you hate them.
Shane Doan, Dustin Brown, Brad Marchand… these are all guys that hockey fans treat kind of like religion or politics. Chances are, every name listed at the top of this article makes you feel pretty strongly — and chances are, you’ve gotten into at least one argument this year with another hockey fan over one (if not more) of them. You’ve staunchly defended them, or you’ve demanded they go literally anywhere else — Siberia, the moon — so long as you never have to see their face on NHL ice again. There’s not a whole lot of in between for this group.
Of course, I’m not talking about league goons. John Scott and Daniel Carcillo have no place in this conversation; neither does Steve Downie or Zac Rinaldo. These aren’t guys that coaches put out on the ice with the knowledge that, even though they may never score an NHL goal, they’re likely to put your opponent down a man from injury.
Instead, these are the guys that provide a strong use for their respective teams — that is, when they aren’t doing something stupid.
During Saturday’s matinée matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Shane Doan — who has been with the Coyotes for 19 seasons, contributing 367 goals for the franchise in that time — delivered what many considered to be a ‘late hit’ to Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. The proximity of the two players to the boards and the way Letang fell ended up injuring the blueliner enough that he was kept in the hospital for observation overnight following the game.
During the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, New York Rangers forward Derek Stepan was hit by Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust with what was considered a ‘high, late hit’. He was suspended two games for the hit — which was considered .3 seconds ‘late’ following Stepan’s last time of puck possession — but there wasn’t much call for him to be ejected from the league.
Doan’s hit, by all accounts, is a similar hit in nature — although lacking the ‘high hit’ suggested by the announcers in the video of the play — but the reaction on social media has been, well, more drastic.
I just watched the video of Letang getting hit. That was a late and vicious hit on a player in a dangerous position. Doan is a filthy prick.
— Matt Henderson (@Archaeologuy) March 28, 2015
Doan isn’t the only player subject to these kinds of reactions when a play is made — whether suspendable or not. Brad Marchand is another player that tends to get the same kinds of reactions out of fans — but is it a matter of trying to eliminate repeat offenders, or more than that?
The league has been smart to make a shift towards penalizing ‘late’ or ‘negligent’ hits. Very few people are against that. Although a hit like Doan’s isn’t a comparable to the head shots forward Raffi Torres became so notorious for — and he certainly didn’t react with the passive flippancy that fourth liner Zac Rinaldo did when his hit of Letang earlier this season injured the defenseman as well — there’s no question that failing to prevent an injury can be just as dangerous as actively attempting to harm another player.
Checks delivered after the play has left an area of the ice are, by and large, unexpected — and a surprise hit can do as much damage (if not more) than one a player is anticipating in the same situation. In order for the league to truly cut down on the number of head injuries and permanent disabilities each season, it’s important to work on minimizing preventable hits that cause damage — and a negligent hit falls under that category without question.
The league seems to see as much anger towards players like Doan, Brown, and Marchand, though — if not more — than is directed towards ‘goons’.
Why is that?
It could be for the same reason that the league shows a widespread disdain for players like Corey Perry and Sidney Crosby, who have developed a reputation of arguing when the game doesn’t go their way — when a player is statistically successful, it’s hard to pity him when something goes wrong. By human nature, we want to see those who do better than us show a sign that they’re ‘human’ — but that doesn’t mean we don’t highlight these character flaws.
The more likely argument, though, is that the league sees a good player using poor judgement on the ice as inexcusable.
When a guy who’s lucky to earn two or three points per season finishes off the year with 200 PIM and a handful of game suspensions, we justify it because that’s what keeps him in the league. If he wasn’t physically aggressive, his talent alone isn’t enough to earn a paycheck.
For a player who regularly scores twenty or more goals, though, these ‘stupid’ plays — the unnecessarily heavy hits, late checks, slew foots, tripping, spearing, and mismatched fighting — aren’t doing anything to earn him his paycheck. If Milan Lucic didn’t spear another player, he would still get top line minutes. And if Shane Doan didn’t deliver a bone-crunching hit to Kris Letang after the puck was halfway up the ice, he’d still be captain of the Arizona Coyotes. They’re making plays that don’t earn them any job security, but DO run a risk of seriously damaging another player — and when that happens more than once, hockey fans tend to lose their tolerance.
Should that warrant a harsher punishment?
To some, yes. As leaders on their respective franchises and role models for many young fans, the league stars who consistently make high-risk plays deserve a harsher punishment than those who make an error in judgement only once or who we expect nothing better from. To others, though, that almost gives the ‘goon’ encouragement to keep doing what he does — if he gets a less severe punishment for a stupid play than the league’s finest, why would he stop?
It’s not a debate that’s likely to be settled any time soon, but it’s worth discussing — because even if the plays aren’t purposefully harmful, the NHL’s best and brightest should certainly know better.