Contact Misconduct

[Amy Bass, Morphizm]
If a baseline definition of contact is to make a connection with someone other than yourself, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin should have a lot of friends. The International Broadcast Centre in Vancouver last month was not the ideal location to be quietly rooting for Russia, but even my Canadian colleagues understood and respected –- despite truly loathing -– Ovechkin’s stick. Before the Russian team left the men’s Olympic tournament with a whimper, it created a bang with its 4-2 win over the Czech Republic. Indeed, Ovechkin’s hit against Jaromir Jagr was a sight to behold, so much so that I found my usually peaceful self standing up and yelling when he did it.

Let’s just say the word “flattened” was embraced by many a hockey writer the next day.

Ovechkin’s check on Jagr could be considered quite symbolic in a larger sense, with the sound of the breaking of the visor on Jagr’s helmet tolling as the final death knell of the old guard. But for Russia on that day, the effect was much simpler. Ovechkin’s hit forced a turnover, with Evgeni Malkin scoring just seconds later. NBC announcer Pierre McGuire credited it with turning the tide: “Talk about dictating the terms….” McGuire said during the replay. “Ovechkin has just swung the entire momentum of this tournament with this play.”

Jagr, who skated to the bench and slammed it in frustration after the play, later said “I wish I had a concussion….Then I could forget.” Others called for a penalty on Ovechkin for inflicting a blow to the head. But Czech forward Martin Havlat said the blow was clean, and even Jagr said that he wasn’t sure where he had been hit.

Which in itself, is kind of hilarious. Except for Jagr.

Fast forward a few weeks: Washington versus Chicago, Ovechkin, heading towards the end of yet another stellar season (96 points, 44 goals despite six missed games for injury and 3 missed games for suspension) hits Brian Campbell and gets a two-game suspension. It isn’t his first of this season: after checking Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta last November, he was thrown out of the game; then after a knee-on-knee collision with Carolina’s Tim Gleason, Ovechkin was issued a two-gamer. And it isn’t the only hit the superstar, who recently signed with IMG, has himself been dealt: after a momentum-gaining Canadian squad badly ousted Russia in Vancouver, footage of a visibly frustrated Ovechkin slamming a fan’s cell phone upon entering Russia House made its way through the wilds of YouTube in a matter of hours, making many wonder: is he just not a nice guy?

I’m not sure. I don’t know Alex. What I do know is that he is a professional hockey player, and professional hockey is, the last time I checked (and by checked I mean looked up, not slammed into or flattened) a contact sport. And if the costume of a professional hockey player is any indication, I think each of them is well aware of the dangers of their sport.

The hit against Campbell had an incredibly unfortunate outcome, absolutely. After Ovechkin made contact, Campbell flew into the rear boards, leaving him out for probably the next two months nursing a broken collarbone, a huge blow to a team with Stanley Cup hopes. But should the injury determine the punishment?

The NHL has had, quite literally, a rough last week or so: Boston’s Marc Savard went down with a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, but Cooke went unscathed. A few days later, Pittsburgh fans held their collective breath when Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie blindsided Sidney Crosby after Crosby had made a pass across the ice: to be clear, Crosby was not in possession at the time of the hit. Crosby hobbled to the bench, obviously in pain from the attempted slew-foot, but later returned to the game. Again, no suspension. All is fair in love and contact sports.

So why Ovechkin, who many are now saying may lose out at yet another Hart Trophy because of what is increasingly being heralded as his “aggressive” style of play (translation: he’s dirty)? He is obviously under the biggest microscope in the league, with people watching him from all sides simply because he is that good. He has also assumed somewhat of an enemy perception in the wake of his rivalry with Crosby, the North American golden boy who most recently led his nation’s Olympic team to the most important gold medal of Canada’s record gold haul. Lastly, NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell —who hands suspensions out – has dubbed Ovechkin a “repeat offender”; Campbell (Colin) further admitted that if Campbell (Brian) hadn’t been hurt, Ovechkin likely would not have been suspended.

So if Crosby had gotten really hurt on what was kind of an insidious hit by Downie, Downie would’ve been suspended?

The NHL seems to have a few decisions to make. Hockey is either a contact sport or it isn’t. The NHL either has set rules or it doesn’t. But this kind of reactive, from-the-hip behavior sends a bad message to all those kids whose parents are undoubtedly calling for Ovechkin’s head because, as a “repeat offender”, he has become a bad role model. Think about it: oh yes, Billy, you can check Tommy as hard as you can, as long as Tommy doesn’t get hurt, and as long as no one you’ve ever checked before happened to hit the boards and get hurt. In other words, only hit guys who can take it; because if you happen to hit a guy who flies the wrong way, you’re doomed.

No wonder Jagr wished for a concussion. Because that would be a more legitimate reason to be dealing with such a headache.