I remember vividly how angry I was when I saw Brandon Sutter getting his clock cleaned by Doug Weight last season. Sutter was going after a loose puck, anticipating a short-handed breakaway when Weight caught him with his head down and delivered a brutal hit. Sutter had a concussion and his season with the big club was pretty much over.
Jim Rutherford, GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, was incensed with the hit and lobbied for the NHL to do away with hits to the head. Of course, that didn't happen. Debates erupted across hockey message boards on the topic and on the hit itself. Was it legal? Well, no matter how hard it is for a 'Canes fan to swallow, it was a perfectly legal hit. Weight didn't leave his feet. Weight didn't bury his elbow into Sutter's ear. It was a textbook hard hit and Islanders fans let us know it at any chance. Their player was not in the wrong. (Kudos to the Hurricanes commentators John Forslund and Tripp Tracy for their objective evaluation of the hit.)
So why was I angry? I was angry because it was difficult to see a player with such promise, a 1st round pick by my favorite team, and a guy who is already being talked about as captain material have his well-being threatened by an avoidable hit. It was avoidable by both Brandon, who should have had his head up and by Doug Weight who could have decided to lay a less violent hit on Sutter. Now, I don't think Weight had any intention of injuring the kid, just look at his face while they're scraping Sutter off the ice. Nor do I think he should have let up. Hitting is a part of the game. Players, especially young players have to learn to keep their heads up. They can't get away with the stuff they could in juniors any more.
This brings us to yesterday. During a preseason game against the Calgary Flames, the New York Islanders 1st round pick from 2006, Kyle Okposo, had his head taken off by Dion Phaneuf. He was skating with his head down through center ice, just as Sutter was last season, when Phaneuf made him pay the price. Although Phaneuf appears to leave his feet, it was as a result of the hit and not because he jumped into Okposo. Phaneuf was penalized for fighting after the hit, but not for the hit itself. It was another clean hit.
It's an unfortunate irony, but the Islanders are now tasting what 'Canes fans tasted last season. This blog is not meant to rub it in or to laugh at anyone's misfortune. It is to remind fans to look at every play, at every hit, at every goal with objectivity. As much as I wanted to be mad at Doug Weight for his hit, I couldn't be because he did nothing wrong. As much as I wanted to be mad at the NHL for not paying heed to Rutherford's pleas, I couldn't. The rules have been that way for a long time and the NHL isn't about to change them because another person got caught with their head down.
They didn't change them in 2006 when Brian Campbell derailed R.J. Umberger. Players are just going to have to learn not to put themselves in that position and fans are going to have to learn to swallow the bitter pill.