As in any sport, the time of the year that is the most anticipated by fans across the world is the start of the playoffs. In the NHL, this holds true even more because of the way that every aspect of the game is intensified. Even though they are already the world’s toughest athletes, the pain threshold and sacrifices increase much more in the playoffs as guys aren’t willing to miss a shift with the possibility of getting one win closer to the Cup on the line.
When the game is at its best, it’s affectionately referred to as “Old-Time Hockey”. Old-Time Hockey unquestionably has a nostalgia, a different era that was defined by the physicality of the game, and the scars and bruises that were worn as badges of honor. Because of the intensity of the playoffs, they usually bring back the feeling of old-time hockey. However, that isn’t the case this year.
Although the 2012 playoffs are only five days old and there is still close to two months of hockey to be played, they have been the perfect example of how the game has changed and the way the players perceive each other has changed. Despite the fact that the NHL is as exciting and fast as it has been since they have opened for business, there is absolutely no respect amongst the players in the league. Back in the 50′s and 60′s when players played without the luxury of overly-protective equipment and helmets, players played hard, they hit hard, and guys were cut and injured as a result. However, there was never a case where Gordie Howe grabbed Jean Beliveau’s head and slammed it twice into the boards in the way that Nashville’s Shea Weber did to Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg in Game 1 of the Predators-Red Wings series.
This year’s playoffs have provided plenty of evidence for how the game has evolved, and has shown that even though the league has made attempts to change some of the flaws in today’s game, that the players haven’t responded to it. In Game 1 of the Canucks-Kings series, Byron Bitz was suspended two games for delivering a shoulder hit to the head of an unsuspecting Kyle Clifford, who had his head down and was facing the boards. In Game 2 of the Rangers-Senators series, Ottawa’s Matt Carkner sucker punched the Rangers’ Brian Boyle and repeatedly punched Boyle while he was down on the ice, earning a game misconduct and a one-game suspension. In the same game, The Rangers’ Carl Hagelin finished a check on Senators’ captain Daniel Alfredsson with an elbow to the head, drawing a five minute major for elbowing, and a three-game suspension.
To top it off, Game 3 of the Penguins-Flyers series on Sunday afternoon featured a number of plays that should warrant suspensions. First, Aaron Asham cross-checked Brayden Schenn in the neck and was given a match penalty. After a number of fights and scrums, including Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, the Penguins’ James Neal delivered elbows to the head of Sean Couturier and Giroux in consecutive shifts.
While there has been talk of taking fighting out of the game because of the health risks that are apparent as a result, it is probably the most honorable part of the game. Old-time hockey was great because fighting held people accountable for their actions on the ice. In today’s game, there are a number of players who are willing to take cheap shots at players because they know that they won’t be held accountable for their actions (supplemental discipline aside). Because of this, guys feel like they can play bigger than their size because they won’t have to stand there and take the physical punishment for delivering cheap shots.
The intensity may be the same, but it’s not the same game. In fact, it’s far from it.