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STONY POINT…. Everyone who has ever watched or played hockey has at some point seen games in the National Hockey League. Whether you see it on television or even better, in person, the speed, beauty, and grace of the game are a thing to behold. The history, the traditions, and the greatest trophy in all of sports all add up to making this the greatest sports league going, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I’m prejudiced because it is my favorite game. But for a moment last week, after an event that occurred in the Montreal Canadiens-Ottawa Senators playoff Game One, I actually had to wonder for the first time in my life if all of the positives put together about this game I hold so dearly do indeed outweigh the negatives.
Maybe you saw this situation live as it happened, or saw the replays (played over and over, ad nauseam) and then heard the ensuing debate about the play. In this game, the Canadiens’ Lars Eller, at their blueline, turned back to accept an up ice breakout pass from teammate Rafael Diaz. If you know the game, you immediately knew this was a “suicide pass,” one in which Eller was going to have to look back and away from any oncoming defenders and reposition himself to successfully accept the pass. Coming from Eller’s blindside was an Ottawa defender, Eric Gryba, who, with full force, stepped into Eller hard, rendering him unconscious momentarily. Eller hit the ice face-first, doing further damage to the facial and dental areas, not to mention the head trauma incurred.
I have to think that most people watching, even hardened hockey tough guys, would have cringed understanding how badly Eller’s condition was going to be. There was some brief mayhem on the ice that quickly subsided as the attention turned to Eller and his welfare. The Canadiens’ bench was furious, and some heated shouting between them and the Sens’ bench ensued. The Habs’ coach Michel Therrien did his best to calm his team down and focus on the game. The Sens went on to win the tilt 3-1 to take a 4-2 lead in the series.
In the next 24 hours, the league would review the incident and suspend Gryba for two games. Everyone in the land who follows the game, media or not, weighed in on the incident. What I heard were a lot of the timeworn hockey clichés: “It was a hockey hit gone bad,” “Diaz shouldn’t have made the pass,” “Everyone is taught from an early age on to keep your head up,” and on and on. I heard several people in the hockey media state that Gryba should not be suspended and that Eller and Diaz bore at least some responsibility for what happened. And finally that Gryba was just doing what he had been taught and conditioned to do from youth hockey forward.
Well, here’s my nickel’s worth, especially regarding the last statement about the teaching and conditioning of players from a young age forward. Eller, in my book and from my viewpoint of what happened (I was watching the game live), has been hurt badly and needlessly. Sure, Gryba may have been in a reactionary stance, doing exactly what he has been conditioned to do over the years. And I get that it is a tough game and blah, blah, blah. I have delivered these types of hits in the past (I’m not proud of them now) to those unsuspecting. And I have been on the end of them. They are easy to deliver—especially when the recipient is an opponent who doesn’t see you coming. They are also kind of gutless. I always justified it by telling myself it was okay because I was usually one of the smallest guys out there. I was wrong.
Lost in all of the dissecting minutiae is one thing I have heard no one say, and one thing that never gets talked about: Gryba didn’t have to make the hit! Yes, he did not have to “freight train” Eller! He had position on him, could have easily contained him, they were 160 feet from the Sens’ net and a potential scoring chance, and last but not least, he didn’t have to go “through” the player to make a defensive play! He had to have known for a fact that Eller was vulnerable and should have handled the situation accordingly.
But that’s not what the game teaches, is it? In the big, bad macho world of upper-level hockey, if Gryba didn’t annihilate Eller, he might have been subjected to criticism that he was a soft player. That’s the dual tragedy of this event. No matter how long the Habs’ last in the tourney, Eller won’t be back. I have to believe that his season is over. Gryba will come back Tuesday eve, and in a few days the event will fade out of the news cycle until the next time around. But Eller in all likelihood will have a long road back before he feels normal again, whatever that is for a pro hockey player.
And sometime in the not-too-distant future, an event just like this will happen again. There will be the usual hand-wringing and questions of why and how did this happen, and a guy will get suspended for a couple of games. Big deal. It is time to get this crap out of the game once and for all. Simple as that. What if Gryba just played Eller to contain him rather than knock him senseless? Would fewer tickets be sold? Would some misguided faux tough-guy fans feel slighted? What if Gryba, knowing full well that Eller’s teammate made a mistake and sent him a pass in a manner he shouldn’t have, had backed off and not made that hit?
Neither do I buy the cliché that “it’s a fast game and sometimes stuff just happens out there.” Wrong. Hockey players are amongst the smartest athletes going (maybe you can’t always tell). I can’t ever remember a moment when I didn’t know exactly what was happening out there and what was going to happen. That’s the biggest lie in the game. I just have one question: is Gryba’s two-game suspension going to stop this from happening again? I already have my answer…. PEACE
Marc Elliott is a freelance sports opinion writer who splits time between his hometown in Illinois and Minnesota. Elliott grew up in the Twin Cities with many of his childhood neighbors working or playing for the Vikings and Twins. He participated in baseball, football and hockey before settling on hockey as his own number one sport. Elliott wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County News Chronicle for ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710AM in Duluth.