Nobody told Scott Stevens he had to change his game after crushing Paul Kariya.
Stevens's devastating open-ice hit was by all appearances a "borderline" one: a raised elbow to the head to a player delivered a good second and a half after he no longer had the puck. There were several examples in Stevens's career of borderline hits. Yet nobody said Stevens had to change his game, because that's what made Stevens what he was: a hall of fame defenseman.
Alexander Ovechkin is who is he is because he plays with the same type of physical edge that Stevens played with. From Ovechkin's first shift in the NHL, in which he leveled poor Radoslav Suchy behind the net, he has been defined by his explosive physicality as much as he has by his scoring prowess. Without his devastating hits, Ovechkin is just a goal-scorer. Sure, he'd still most likely be the best goal scorer, but he wouldn't be the exhilarating combination of wrecking ball and skill we have been privileged to see ever since that first game in October 2005. Without his physical edge, would Ovechkin really be any different than Kovalchuk?
Following the Gleason hit, there has been unanimous condemnation of Ovechkin and a nearly universal call for him to "change his ways." From the predictable mainstream media (hello, Scott Burnside) to the predictable mouthbreathers (hello, Empty Netters), the voices have been unanimous in their tsk-tsk'ing disapproval of Ovechkin's hit on Gleason. Many of those calling for Ovechkin to be suspended and for him to change his game are guilty of hypocrisy at-best; xenophobia at-worst. Where are they when Mike Richards head-hunts? Where were they when Stevens delivered any of his famous hits that helped land him in the hall of fame? Heck, even one of the most celebrated Canadian iconic hockey moments was Bobby Clarke viciously -- and intentionally -- using his stick to break the ankle of the Soviet Union's star forward. Clarke was and still is celebrated for this. Yet Ovechkin is universally condemned for what nearly everyone agrees was not an intentional but a "reckless" knee-on-knee collision. This, my friends, is hypocrisy. I cannot be in the minds of the hypocrites to say for sure that is caused by jingoism. But you have to be a donkey not to notice that those celebrated for their "borderline" play are Canadian, while those vilified for it have funny sounding names.
The truth is, Ovechkin's hit on Gleason was not worthy of a suspension. The suspension was the culmination of a chorus of criticism of Ovechkin that began a year and a half ago with sly public comments by Ovechkin's top competitors, Richards and Crosby, that were meant to the sow the seed in referees' minds that Ovechkin needed to be contained. The seeds bore fruit in recent weeks, as Ovechkin's completely legal hit on super-pest Kuleta resulted in an unwarranted game misconduct. That event was fresh in everyone's mind when the more borderline hit on Gleason took place. The universal, but misguided condemnation of Ovechkin following the Gleason hit all but forced Colin Campbell's hand to suspend Ovechkin. I can see the argument for a suspension. I do not agree with it, but I can accept the decision. It's the calls for Ovechkin to change his game that I disagree with.
If you accept that the knee-contact was unintentional, then what exactly should Ovechkin have done differently? He wasn't aiming for the knee; it was a byproduct of him doing what he does: hit people at a million miles per hour. Sometimes they see him coming and try to get out of the way. Sometimes their evasion results in an awkward hit. Sometimes that manifests itself in knee-on-knee contact. This is the law of averages. If any player hits people as much as Ovechkin does, some of those hits are going to look bad. There is no way to prevent outliers without asking a player to stop hitting altogether
Nobody asked Stevens to stop hitting people. Nobody should ask today's best player to become a lesser player.
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