Commentary

The ugly truth

Playoffs have been marked by violent hits, part of a hard-to-change hockey culture

Updated: April 18, 2012, 4:40 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Marian Hossa left the United Center in an ambulance.

That was after he was carted off the ice, his neck stabilized, his body supine.

That was after he lay on the ice for long, scary minutes as the United Center piped in "Blue Moon" to chill out the crowd (it didn't work) and cut replays from the scoreboard.

That was after Hossa's head bounced off the ice.

That was after Phoenix Coyotes aggressor Raffi Torres left his feet and rammed his left shoulder into Hossa's right jaw.

That was after Torres, skating from behind, sized up Hossa like he was Brandon Meriweather on skates.

That was all after Andrew Shaw nailed goaltender Mike Smith in the last game and NHL discipline czar Brandon Shanahan finally ruled on the matter Tuesday afternoon, suspending the Blackhawks rookie for three games.

That was after Shanahan failed to penalize the Nashville Predators' Shea Weber for slamming Henrik Zetterberg's head against the glass at the end of the first game of the Nashville-Detroit series in one of the more puzzling non-calls we've seen in the Sheriff Shanny era.

You don't need the Major Crimes Unit to connect the dots and figure out how we got to Hossa leaving the United Center in an ambulance. The good news is that Hossa left Northwestern Memorial Hospital and, according to the team, tests were encouraging and he's being monitored at home.

[+] EnlargeMarian Hossa
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks' Marian Hossa is moved off of the ice on a stretcher after he was hit by the Coyotes' Raffi Torres.

The Blackhawks lost, by the way, 3-2 in overtime on a soft goal allowed by Corey Crawford. But no one was screaming about goaltender issues or the Blackhawks being down 2-1 in the series.

As Smith, the Coyotes goaltender, said after the game: "Obviously head hits have to be cut down. Hockey, we love to play it and it's a fun sport, but people have families and kids at home and wives. When you're getting into heads and concussion issues around the whole league, we need to put a stop to it."

Smith added that he didn't see the play, though he later added, "Hockey is a great sport, it's a fast sport and injuries happen, but when you see something like that happen, it makes you think."

So Smith didn't see it or did see it, depending on his answer. Coyotes captain Shane Doan firmly professed ignorance.

"I haven't seen it, but from what I've been told, it wasn't that bad," he said.

Wasn't that bad? I guess it's a sliding scale for those play this game for a living. Who were his sources? "Guys on the bench." Oh, OK. Not exactly impartial witnesses. To his credit, Doan added, "I hope Hossy's OK."

So how about the authority figure in the room? Did he see anything?

"I haven't looked at it yet on video, but it looked to me like he was finishing the check," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.

Torres didn't see it. He lived it. After the game, in a one-answer press conference, he called it a "hockey play." Which is pretty accurate, considering the way the game is played sometimes.

"First off, I hope he's all right," Torres said. "But as far as the hit goes, I felt like it was a hockey play. I was just trying to finish my hit out there, and, as I said, I hope he's all right."

Every Coyotes player and four officials missed the hit. But not Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. He was, well, about what you'd expect after the game.

"It was a brutal hit," he said as he ground his molars to dust. "You can have a multiple-choice question; it's 'all of the above.' I saw exactly what happened, it was right in front of me, and all four guys missed it. The refereeing tonight was a disgrace."

I saw it, too. Over and over. On repeat. "Brutal" and "disgrace" are two valid words.

I'm not trying to be Hockey Morals Cop here. I don't have the earned authority to do it. But I cover violent sports for a living, and I know ugly, and I know intentional, and I know what I saw was a sad indictment of a sport during the only time that casual fans south of Canada pay attention.

And I fully realize the Hossa hit looked worse, perhaps, than it really was. But it wasn't good live and it looked terrible on rewind.

"It's scary," Smith said. He did admit to seeing Hossa carted off.

As fans and reporters, we're more attuned to recognizing this brand of violence now, or at least in showing our disgust toward it. Watching football is becoming a tug of war between shame and visceral enjoyment. Hockey purists, and I guess alarmists, are worried hockey is going down the same path.

Like football, hockey's violence problem isn't new, but it's been illuminated the past few years that we can't escape the ugly downside of our gladiatorial sports. From the New Orleans Saints' bounty story to the ugly start to the NHL playoffs, we can't get away. Sidney Crosby is the poster child of post-concussion syndrome, and in Chicago, we saw Jonathan Toews struggle to return from a concussion this season.

Tuesday's actions should've been expected after what Shaw did to Smith. If anyone was going to take a lick on a Hawks star, it was Torres.

There is a mustiness to how the league operates when it comes to penalizing violence. It's why there are goons and a fighting culture that has outlasted the old barns of yesterday. Stars are targeted and fighters protect them. The code of the Hockey Hammurabi. It's tough to regulate.

A year ago to the day, Torres, then a Vancouver Canuck, took out Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook with a high shot behind the goal. He got a two-minute penalty that day, but no suspension. On Tuesday, no penalty. I have to think he'll get suspended, though; you can bet on that. If he gets fewer than four games, one more than Shaw, there's a problem.

"Who knows [what will happen to Torres]?" an angry Toews said. "I don't know what to expect anymore. I don't think anyone does, so we'll see. It will probably be a surprise, I guess."

In reality -- a world that sometimes coexists with the plane of existence that houses the NHL offices -- if Shaw got three games for that hit on Smith, not only should Torres be suspended from this series, but also from watching the "NHL '94" scene in "Swingers." He shouldn't be allowed in a Tim Horton's or a Pizza Pizza.

"It's why it was frustrating that [Torres] got to stay in the game," Toews said. "Because it wouldn't surprise me if he tried to do something like that again. If nothing happens to him, I don't see why he won't try it."

For all the rinky-dink penalties that get called, to miss that one is egregious. There has to be a way to review hits like that and dish out penalties. I know, I know. That would ruin the flow of the game. That would take away the power of the officials. Those would be bad excuses.

Hockey is a fast, often violent game. Will it ever change? Should it? Better yet, can it? We can forget quickly. But there was an extra edge to the fans at the United Center, not to mention the Blackhawks when they scored to end the first period.

It sounds like Hossa will be fine, and the Blackhawks and Coyotes will play on, with or without him. More fighting is bound to happen. Big hits will be dished out. We can only hope this series will be about hockey from here on out. But who really believes that?

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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