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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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Big Boppers
Here are SI's rankings of the top 10 bodycheckers in the game today.

1.

Eric Lindros (above), Flyers

2.

Scott Stevens, Devils

3.

Darius Kasparaitis, Penguins

4.

Rob Blake, Kings

5.

Derian Hatcher, Stars

6.

Keith Tkachuk, Coyotes

7.

Igor Ulanov, Canadiens

8.

Bryan Marchment, Sharks

9.

Michael Peca, Sabres

10.

Ed Jovanovski, Canucks

This compilation of greatest hits is not sold at any store. It's a somewhat arbitrary collection, for how are hockey hits to be judged? By number of bones rattled? On the Richter scale? Though the NHL two years ago began keeping a statistic it calls a "hit"—contact that "significantly impedes" a player's progress—you can no more define the greatness of a hockey hit with a stat than you can declare the Beatles' A Day in the Life a classic because it is four minutes, 46 seconds long.

Hitting is the soul of hockey—"Take it out of the game, there's nothing left," says Montreal Canadiens coach Alain Vigneault—and those on the receiving end often describe it as an out-of-body experience. In hockey, as in music, hits succeed because of the impression they leave, which is why the impression on Gary Dornhoefer's chest is the best place to start the discussion. Big hits can change a shift, a period, a game, a playoff series or even hockey history, as one that leveled Dornhoefer in the 1976 Stanley Cup finals did.

The mid-1970s were the NHL's Dark Ages. A marauding gang of Visigoths—O.K., the Philadelphia Flyers—ruled the sport, winning two straight Stanley Cups before a lanky, frizzy-haired Montreal Canadiens defenseman ushered in the Age of Enlightenment with his right shoulder. Larry Robinson's historic check on Dornhoefer, which propelled the Philly forward into the wall, was so violent that the Forum boards broke. "Perfectly clean hit," says Dornhoefer, who is now a Flyers broadcaster. "The ref called a penalty on it, maybe because he felt sorry for me. I was spitting up blood."

If Philadelphia had won a third consecutive Cup, the league might have plunged into a prolonged period of thuggery—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in the NHL—but the check, in the third period of Game 2, reinforced the Canadiens' courage and carried them to a sweep. The pain in Dornhoefer's chest lasted two weeks, but Montreal's victory tipped the game back to a balance of fierceness and finesse that prevails to this day.

"I remember the P.A. announcement that the game was being held up to fix the boards, and I remember the crowed cheering, but actually I didn't see a tape of the hit until 10 or 15 years later at an awards banquet," says Robinson, now the coach of the Los Angeles Kings. "I didn't realize I hit him that hard. I guess the hit changed the series, but that's what hits are supposed to do. They change the momentum. They elevate everybody on your team."

The greatest hits also can be a personal statement, as was the best hit ever landed before the second cup of morning coffee. A few minutes after nine o'clock, roughly five seconds into the first scrimmage of Team Canada's training camp for the 1991 Canada Cup, 18-year-old Eric Lindros rattled Al MacInnis, a venerable defenseman, with a check so vicious that MacInnis clambered to his skates in sections, like a punch-drunk marionette. Lindros's hit was a nonverbal introduction, an announcement that not only was he going to make himself at home, but that he also wasn't planning to let anyone else touch the remote control.

The bodycheck is also suitable for special occasions, such as the Stanley Cup finals. In 1995, New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens drove Detroit Red Wings forward Keith Primeau from Game 1 with a debilitating check before delivering a Game 2 hit that turned winger Slava Kozlov into a smear of cream cheese. But memorable hits don't come only in the postseason. On the first shift of the Kings' opening game of the 1998-99 season, Norris Trophy winner Rob Blake separated the Edmonton Oilers' 215-pound Andrei Kovalenko from the puck and perhaps his senses as Kovalenko broke into the Los Angeles zone with his head down. Says Blake, "I was just starting to campaign for [another Norris] a little early."

Then there is the check as contagion, as evidenced in Game 2 of the 1986 Cup finals. With the Canadiens down a game to the Calgary Flames, Montreal captain Bob Gainey ran amok. "It got to the point where none of us wanted to touch the puck when Bob was on the ice," recalls Edmonton assistant general manager Doug Risebrough, then winding down his career with the Flames. "The Canadiens were watching Bob, and pretty soon [Brian] Skrudland started hitting and [Claude] Lemieux started hitting." Montreal won that match and went on to win the Cup in five games.

Great hits carry no statistical weight but reverberate through the decades like chants of "Potvin sucks," which are still audible whenever the New York Islanders, Denis Potvin's former club, or the Florida Panthers, the team for which he works as a broadcaster, play at Madison Square Garden. Potvin was a brilliant defenseman in part because he was a big hitter. He had the gifts of strength and timing, a facet of hitting he polished in his final year of junior hockey under coach Leo Boivin, a squat, hard-hitting defenseman in the 1950s and '60s who hip-checked his way into the Hall of Fame. Potvin was an expert with his shoulders and his hips.

On Feb. 25, 1979, Potvin earned the eternal wrath of Garden fans by laying out the Rangers' Ulf Nilsson. "I'd made that play a thousand times," Potvin says. "A guy coming with speed, you force him to the outside. We went shoulder to shoulder into the boards, he turned to avoid the hit, and his ankle just got stuck in a rut. Good check. Bad ice." An ineffective Nilsson returned from a broken right ankle for two games of the Stanley Cup finals, but New York lost to the Canadiens in five. In the mushy logic of Rangers fans, a healthy Nilsson would have guaranteed a Cup. "What really upset them is that the Islanders won the first of four straight Cups the next year," Potvin says. "The Rangers had a pretty good team in '79. Nilsson. Anders Hedberg. Phil Esposito. Who knows? Anyway, one check started all that stuff."

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