You just got Kronwalled.
When hockey is brought up, there is no aspect more controversial than hitting. In the last decade, the NHL has witnessed an increase in head injuries which has inevitably forced the league to re-evaluate and change some of its rules in order to prevent these types of serious injuries from occurring. There's no doubt in my mind that hitting can be dangerous, and there is tons of evidence — a whole bunch of concussed players — that supports this claim; however, I'm a huge proponent of hitting and I believe that it can be condusive to winning — especially in the playoffs. This is my guide to understanding why hitting is important in the National Hockey League.
Before I begin, I want to make it extremely clear that I'm not a supporter of gratuitous violence, and I'm always disappointed when I see players who elbow, leave their feet, target the head, or hit from behind when initiating a hit. Do not confuse stupidity with physicality, they are not synonymous by any means.
In order to truly understand why hitting is important, one must understand the basics of the game. If you watch hockey long enough, you begin to realize that it can be boiled down to three words: space, time, and position — all of which are instrumental to a team's success.
A player who has enough time and space will, nine times out of ten, make the correct play (not a real stat, just an assumption on my part — one which seems fair since these guys are supposed to be the best players in the world). But if an opposing player is charging with the intention of laying him flat, the puck carrier no longer has the luxury of time and space to make the right play, and as a result, the play he decides to make will be based on instinct as opposed to a calculated and thought-out move. If the puck carrier is aware of an incoming player but knows that he won't get hit, does he rush as much to make the play? Probably not. The fact that he knows an impending hit is inevitable forces him to make a play a couple of seconds faster than he would if hitting was illegal. Although seconds may seem inconsequential, they are in fact monumental for players in the NHL.
In the same vein, hitting can have an effect on a player's psyche. If you've ever played in a contact league, you'll know how embarrassing it is to get hit, or how aggravating it becomes to chase down a puck in the corners and get checked, bumped, and pushed around. This mental breakdown happens often in players, and it usually yields two positive results for the checking team: the "checkee" plays tentatively for fear of being checked once more, or he becomes frustrated and takes a stupid penalty.
*Note: these are not the only two results which may occur from excessive hitting. There is also a chance that the 'checkee' becomes overwhelmed with motivation and decides to elevate his game to another level. In which case, this may happen:
That takes care of the time and space aspect of hitting, but what about positioning? Well, as I'm sure most of you know already, hitting has a way of taking a player out of the play momentarily (which, coincidentally, creates more space for players to operate). This is a double-edged sword, and the checker must ensure contact is made, or else he now becomes the player out of position. That being said, If you've ever seen a Canucks game and have watched the Sedins play, you understand how important positioning is (and how having a telepathic connection with someone is borderline cheating). Hockey is the fastest sport on the planet (NASCAR doesn't count), and players rely mainly on instinct when they create what seems like impossible plays. Well, it's not magic; it's all about positioning (and a touch of skill). If a player can momentarily put an opposing player out of position by hitting him, he may prevent a goal — or even create one — for his team.
Lastly, most fans (except Adnan, apparently) go wild when a player from the opposing team gets rocked by a bone crushing hit, and so do the players on the bench. Big hits are a great way for a player to remind his teammates that they need to step it up. It's a motivator of sorts, and it usually boosts the energy of both teams (which ultimately leads to a better show for the fans). I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been to the CTC (Corel Centre, Scotiabank Place at the time) and the crowd was quiet, the pace of the game was dull, until BOOM, a big hit. The crowd wakes up, as do the players, and the pace quickly begins to intensify. You feel the momentum shift, and suddenly you're at the edge of your seat, eyes glued to the action on the ice. Believe it or not, but players really do feed on the energy from the fans, and if you've ever been to a home game in Ottawa (during the regular season, playoffs are a different story), then you're aware that the energy level in the building isn't always impressive.
So next time someone tells you there is no place in the league for energy guys like Chris Neil (his inclination to take bad penalties aside) remember that hitting does indeed have an impact on the outcome of games, even if it's hard to quantify statistically.
(By no means should this post be taken as evidence of hitting as a game changer, nor do I front it as anything more than my opinion. Take it or leave it.)