It’s a good thing Scott Stevens isn’t playing hockey anymore.

The Hall of Fame defenceman, who played over 1,600 NHL games, made a career out of serving up bone-rattling, tooth-loosening hits – the same kind of hit that the Ottawa Senators’ Eric Gryba was suspended for last week.

Stevens was feared by his opponents. Take a pass with your head down and Stevens would cream you. Try to make an extra move at the blue line and Stevens would level you. Cut into the middle of the ice and Stevens would make you regret it in a hurry. They didn’t call him Captain Crunch for nothing.

Big, strong and mean, Stevens was best known for open-ice hits which stopped opponents dead in their tracks. If a soft pass up the middle is considered putting a player onto the trolley tracks, Stevens was the trolley, and he took great pleasure in running people over.

They were punishing, but clean hits. With 2,785 career penalty minutes, Stevens was only assessed four elbowing penalties over the entire length of his career.

On Thursday night, Gryba dealt out a hit that Stevens would be proud of. Montreal Canadiens defenceman Raphael Diaz launched a pass from beside his team’s net to forward Lars Eller skating into the middle of the ice at the blue line. Gryba anticipated the play and physically met Eller at the same time as he received the pass. Eller bounced off the substantially larger Ottawa D-man, fell to the ice face-first and was down for the count, coming to moments later in a pool of blood.

Gryba coasted into Eller, he didn’t accelerate. His shoulders and elbows were down, he didn’t go after Eller’s head. His feet stayed on the ice. The bleeding from Eller’s mouth and nose was a result of his face hitting the ice.

Gryba knocked Eller into next week, but it was a clean hit. The Hockey Night in Canada panel agreed it wouldn’t merit suspension, as did multiple media outlets and hockey experts across the country. It was clean.

Still, on Friday afternoon, NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan handed Gryba a two-game suspension for the play.

According to Shanahan’s ruling: “We do not see malicious intent by Gryba on this play. Eller is eligible to be checked and Gryba does not extend an elbow or launch into the head. However, Gryba’s route is not correct and we do not feel that he makes enough of a full body check for this hit not to qualify as an illegal check to the head.”

So it was Gryba’s “route” that was the problem. That explains it. No wonder players are confused about what constitutes a suspendible offense and what doesn’t.

In the league’s ongoing efforts to reduce concussions, there is no grey area when a player suffers a head injury. Shanahan and the NHL head office also wanted to nip things in the bud before they get out of control. The first round of last year’s playoffs was a particularly violent scene until Shanahan started doling out suspensions.

But most importantly, the image of Eller regaining consciousness in a pool of blood wasn’t good optics for the NHL, still struggling for relevance in most U.S. markets. According to the league’s confused values, fighting is acceptable but anything that ends in injury – even if it’s clean – is not.

“When [Shanahan] saw this,” Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry said of an Ottawa Sun cover photo of Eller covered in blood, “It was suspension time. You can’t have this in the paper like that and not get suspended.”

The suspension did little to suppress the bad blood between the Canadiens and Senators. The Sens took a 2-1 series lead Sunday night with a 6-1 win that featured seven fights.

But fighting is fine in today’s NHL. As are sticks to the face, knees and Achilles-severing skates. Clean, open-ice hits apparently are not.

Scott Stevens wouldn’t have lasted a minute in today’s NHL.

1 Comments | Add a Comment
I've seen the "Steven's Greatest Hits" video numerous times and the common theme with all of those hits is elbow in, shoulder down, contact to the chest. The only one of those hits that would be a penalty or suspension in "today's NHL" is number 2 in the countdown on Kariya simply because Kariya released the puck and was "no longer eligible to be checked" as Shannahan would put it. Somewhere along the line, hits in the NHL became predatory and malicious with clear intent to injure. Brad Marchand is a great example of this. The reason why Gryba got suspended is because his "route", as Shannahan explains, goes across Eller's chest to the far shoulder, which would inevitibly result in contact to the face, head or jaw. Anyone who has ever played ice hockey and delivered a clean body check knows this.
*Your Name:
*Enter code:
* Comment: