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Check, Please
Michael Farber
March 29, 1999
Like it or not, hitting is the soul of hockey, and there's nothing like a resounding bodycheck to change the flow of a game or even the course of history
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March 29, 1999

Check, Please

Like it or not, hitting is the soul of hockey, and there's nothing like a resounding bodycheck to change the flow of a game or even the course of history

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Cam Neely was sitting around the house this winter, complaining to his wife, Paulina, that his left shoulder hurt. Neely, a powerful Bruins winger who could have walked downstairs from the old Boston Garden to North Station after games and doubled as the 11:08 express to Marblehead, couldn't remember doing anything to hurt it. As he talked, it occurred to him that the shoulder ached precisely because he hadn't done anything. "You get so used to banging as a player," says Neely, who retired in 1996. "At the time you don't realize it hurts [your shoulder]."

The 6'1", 218-pound Neely was a classic shoulder checker. As he crashed into victims on the claustrophobic Boston Garden ice, he would stun them with his upper body. A smaller player, such as 5'11" Michael Peca of the Buffalo Sabres, a premier hitter who is listed at 181 pounds but who midway through the playoff grind looks as wispy as Kate Moss, uses his legs to generate force.

Hitting techniques are as personal as skating styles, but all great hitters share one attribute. "They go through you, not to you," says Ryan Walter, the Vancouver Canucks broadcaster who played for three teams in 15 NHL seasons from 1978-79 to '92-93. "Look at Lindros now, or the way Neely or Gainey played. There's no hesitation in their stride when they're going to hit. Some guys have to set their feet, which is like a train braking and slowing. Then they have to use their arms, which diminishes the force. You see more and more guys using arms now. But a Lindros hit just washes right through. That's the kind of check that brings people out of their seats."

That includes the paramedics. Lindros, the Flyers captain, laid out Ottawa Senators forward Andreas Dackell like a $12.99 smorgasbord last October with a legal, last-rites hit against the end boards that caused a concussion and two severe facial cuts. The hit, like all great ones, changed the tempo immediately: Ironically, it was the Flyers who were so shaken by Dackell's injury that they allowed Ottawa to pump in three goals when play resumed. The 6'4", 236-pound Lindros denied he was bothered by the aftermath of the hit, in which Ottawa called for a suspension—"What would they suspend Eric for, being big?" mused Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke—but he scored only two goals in the next six games.

Lindros is sensitive to other players' injuries, which is not surprising when you consider that his brother Brett's career was cut short because of postconcussion syndrome. Eric himself spent a month in a fog last season after Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis caught him with his head down along the boards. Kasparaitis isn't the NHL's hardest hitter, but he's surely the most persistent, coupling an almost comic doggedness with that vanishing art form, the hip check. The hip check might be superfluous (Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Bryan Trottier says it isn't necessary in the modern game because of neutral zone trapping); it might even be dangerous (the notorious Bryan Marchment of the San Jose Sharks throws hip checks in which he appears to be using his knee to attack an opponent's knee, a hit that can easily cause injury); but it is certainly spectacular. The hip-checking defenseman keeps a small gap between himself and the puck carrier, suckering the forward into trying to scoot through the opening. If the defenseman can close the path with one stride, he gets his hip and rump into the opponent, sending him up and over in a half Louganis.

"Most of the time, even if you just get a piece of [a player] with a hip check, he's knocked off balance," says St. Louis Blues defenseman Jamie Rivers, one of the NHL's few remaining hip checkers. "So your partner or whoever's backchecking can get the puck."

Bob Plager, the Blues' director of pro scouting and one of the best hip checkers in the 1960s and 1970s, mourns the passing of the craft the way some miss John Lennon. But the hits keep coming. You just have to look a little harder for them.

The laws of physics suggest that with players getting bigger and faster, bodychecking would be even more devastating. This is no more true than the notion that greater amps automatically lead to better songs. The consensus is that they don't make hits like they used to, although hitting might not have disappeared so much as migrated.

The train wrecks that used to occur in the middle of the neutral zone have generally shifted to the boards, where the hitting is more controlled and less punishing. "The style in the last three or four years is much more conservative," says Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn. "There's not the same movement [with all the trapping]. Now people stand still, so you don't get the collision."

The neutral-zone trap that has been the foundation of defense in the 1990s is rooted in angles and positioning, not wipeouts. The defenseman is limited in his opportunity to chase big hits. Even Stevens—notwithstanding that solid-gold hit on Kozlov—hasn't been as devastating an open-ice hitter in New Jersey as he was earlier in his career with the Washington Capitals and the Blues. The modern bodychecker tries to hit the puck carrier in such a way that if he misses, he won't be trapped behind the play. "Position defense in hockey is almost like defense in basketball now," says Vancouver coach Marc Crawford.

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