BLAKE SEBRING: Komets, hockey debating the legality of big hits

Komets forward Shawn Szydlowski hits Tulsa's Dylan Hubbs during a Nov. 19 game at Memorial Coliseum. Szydlowski received cross checking and roughing penalties on the play. (By Josh Gales for The News-Sentinel)

As Fort Wayne Komets defenseman Cody Sol says, “When you hit a guy clean and he goes flying, it’s a lot of fun. The crowd goes crazy.”

But Sol also knows he can’t attempt those hits very often. If he targets someone for a hard check, he often becomes the target of referees, partly because of his size at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds.

“Quite frankly, anytime I hit someone, I’m getting a penalty so I tend not to hit,” he said. “There’s really no point for me to hit. I can’t clean-hit a guy because it’s a headshot. I try to keep my hands and my shoulders down, but the only way I can cleanly hit someone is to find someone who is the same size.”

There have been a few big hits of late during games involving the Komets that have received penalty calls, some for and some against. Were these especially vicious hits?

It’s all a matter of perspective, a referee’s perspective, and his interpretation the only one that matters.

It seems of late the bigger the hit, the quicker the penalty call, and frankly, the players and fans are confused on why certain hits are being called as penalties. The whole process has become baffling as the game continues to evolve.

A few weeks ago, Komets forward Garrett Thompson was given a roughing penalty for making a check against an Allen defenseman along the boards. Then Sol was called for roughing for hitting a Rapid City forward after he released a shot. During the Komets’ game last Friday against Wichita, defenseman Ryan Culkin lined up Thunder forward Mark MacMillan for a hit along the boards behind the Fort Wayne net and received a roughing penalty from referee Chris Pontes.

“I thought Chris, for the most part tonight, did a good job, but that’s the referee getting involved in a 6-2 game, plain and simple,” Komets coach Gary Graham said. “There’s no way anybody in their right mind would call that. That’s the cleanest hit I’ve ever seen. It’s textbook, it’s what you would teach using USA Hockey protocol for what a clean hit is.”

This isn’t meant to be a story criticizing the referees, but instead to examine how players try to prepare mentally for games and how they approach potential hits. Coaches demand players finish their checks, fans love them and want more of those types of plays, but no one could blame players if they hesitate to deliver the big hits. After all, they can’t afford to take a penalty with what could be seen as in today’s game a risky play.

How do they figure it out?

“You don’t figure it out,” Graham said.

That’s essentially what the players say, but they also say they can’t worry about what the referee might call.

“To be honest, we have to finish hits and stay within the rules of the game, and if they call it a penalty, we can’t control that,” captain Jamie Schaafsma said. “We still have to finish those hits. If we do a good job of moving our feet and not using our sticks, and if they want to call us for hits, we just have to try not to worry about that so much.”

The Komets want to play a hard, heavy game and be tough to play against, but that’s not so easy, though. Hesitation can create more problems.

“You can’t hesitate, you just have to play,” Thompson said. “If you are out there thinking in any aspect of the game, you’re not playing the game the right way. It’s just read and react type of stuff, a lot of quick stuff. A lot of the time it’s the ref’s decision. If there’s a big hit and the ref keeps calling it, obviously guys are going to be shying away from doing it. It’s in the ref’s hands most of all.”

Sometimes, it seems to have more to do with how an opponent reacts to a hit rather than the impact of the physicality. It also seems to matter sometimes whether a hit is near the boards as officials and leagues legitimately look to protect players. In the age of concussions, they have no choice but to try to protect players. Everyone involved in the hockey hierarchy knows there could be potential health problems and lawsuits, partly because so many former players are dealing with issues every day.

Generally, players usually understand and accept the officiating style that looks to protect them.

“When you see a guy is vulnerable, you don’t want to take his head off,” Sol said. “You want to be somewhat safe out there because we have respect for each other. With a two-ref system, I bet they’d make a better call every time, but one ref has a lot of ice and guys to cover out there.”

It’s amazing how much the game has changed in terms of physical play. During the early-1990s, the Komets were responsible for making a number of hits each period, and those had to be solid, definitive hits. In today’s games, there aren’t as many hits during an entire game as there were in four shifts 25 years ago. Even 10 years ago, these now-questionable hits were accepted and expected as part of the game.

Some of the change is strategic as removing the center-ice red line in 2005 increased the speed and maneuverability of forwards in particular. No longer can a defenseman like Scott Stevens wait for a big hit at the red line because he knows the forward can only skate so far down the ice without the puck. The neutral zone was more of a hunting ground.

The automatic hybrid icing call instituted in 2013 has also taken hitting away, as rushing forwards used to drive defensemen into the boards. Now it’s just a speed-skating contest. The game is more about positioning than it is about punishing an opponent.

“The way the game is changed with the speed, if you step up to hit a guy, sometimes it’s not worth it,” defenseman Bobby Shea said. “Sometimes you just want to gap them up and wait for your guys to get back so you can get the puck in transition. If you can jump ahead of the guy and make the play and get the puck up ice, that’s a lot more important than making a hit.”

Every player asked about hitting suggested that using a two-referee system might lead to better calls because it’s impossible for one referee to see everything on the ice, and often they are reacting to their peripheral vision. It’s their only option because it’s impossible for one person to see everything that happens on the ice no matter who good their positioning. It’s a flaw in the game.

But no one expects the ECHL to start using two referees during the regular season as the league does in the playoffs. The owners don’t want the cost, and the league would have to find twice as many referees when recruiting and training is always a challenge.

The players’ only options are to make the hits when they are presented and hope the referee judges their technique is perfect. If penalties are called, they know it’s not an argument they will ever win.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.

COMMENTS