I have used an extremely scientific process (I can't tell you the details, but it involves my memory and a cursory YouTube search) to narrow down the three biggest hits of the Ottawa Senators' 2013 season. I think the most interesting thing about these hits is that they were all controversial, which gives me an opportunity to get philosophical before we get to the fun stuff.
I love big hits--when they happen to opponents. I would be dismayed if Erik Karlsson got smeared, but if it were to happen to, say, Nazem Kadri--oh, well. Personally, I think this is because as fans we tend to dehumanize opponents out of our dislike for the crest on their jerseys. Would we have felt the same way about Dave Dziurzynski if he had knocked out Frazer McLaren, or would we have just said McLaren knew the risks and should have protected himself better?
I think we see something similar to big hits. The culture in the NHL now is that any big hit requires some kind of retribution, and that has only helped blur the line between legal and illegal hits. The thrill of the big hit is now immediately accompanied by a scrum, and scrutiny over what the initial point of contact was--as if a blow to the head is somehow less dangerous if it's struck a half second after the chest. And yet, depending on whether the team we're rooting for delivered the hit or not, we're able to find the video evidence to justify our opinions on its legality.
The truth is that the culture in the NHL today makes big hits a gray area. Very few are clearly illegal or clearly legal. Hits that were used to sell the game just a decade ago are now the source of debate among fans. And it all happens because we view the players as things and not people. He should have kept his head up, you say. He knew the risks, you rationalize. Shouldn't be playing if he's not willing to take them. But, I wonder, are these the same things you'd tell your own son or daughter if they were sitting in a darkened room being checked by a doctor for concussion symptoms?
Somehow, I doubt it.
And yet, knowing that, I can't deny that I love big hits--just like I love fighting. Blast someone on the ice and I cheer. If they're okay afterwards, great--it was a good hit. If they're not okay, I hope they don't suffer any permanent damage--and then go right back to cheering for the next big hit. There's no getting around it: Hockey can be a violent game, and I'm entertained by violence. I also care about player safety--presumably more than the league does, since I think both fighting and blows to the head should be removed. But it's not up to me to determine what should be in the game. That's up to the NHL and NHLPA to decide. And what they've decided on is a murky guessing game where explanations like "Gryba's route was not correct" (which, of course, is not listed in the rules as illegal) are meant to placate all sides. So, until they get their act together and agree on some solution that leaves in big hits but genuinely takes player safety seriously, I say hit on.
And now, without further ado, the top three Senators hits from last season.
But wait, first some further ado to pump us up! Let's watch soon-to-be-former prospect Darren Kramer annihilate someone!
Okay, now on to the candidates, in no particular order.
1. Jared Cowen on Jeff Skinner
This was Cowen's first game back from a supposedly season-ending injury. There were questions about how Cowen would handle himself. But late in the first period, Cowen made it clear he wasn't worried about the risk of further injury by pulverizing Skinner at the red line. Cowen then followed that hit up by tangling with Chad LaRose. I felt the hit was illegal at the time (and still do), but given the height and weight differences, the outcome here was pretty much inevitable. Skinner may as well have run into a wall--head contact or not, he was on the wrong end of the physics of this hit.
2. Eric Gryba on Lars Eller
Surely the most controversial on this list, thanks to the optics of Eller's blood on the ice, this one infused Ottawa's playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens with malice and acrimony almost immediately. Head coach Paul MacLean's comments about "Player 61" (Raphael Diaz) being more responsible for Eller's injury than Gryba was incensed the Habs, and MacLean would continue to play head games for the rest of the series. And, really, there's not much choice for Gryba here--playing defense is his job, and he can't allow Eller to skate by that blue line uncontested. A less violent hit would probably be called interference, so there's really only one thing to do, and he does it. Most of the severity of Eller's injuries come from his face bouncing off the ice, and this hit allowed the Senators to set the tone for the remainder of the series.
3. Chris Neil on Simon Despres
This one is on here for a few reasons. First of all, it's classic Neil. The "behind the net while you're not looking" check is a Neil staple, and he delivered it perfectly. Secondly, this was astonishingly called a penalty, furthering the "NHL favors the Pittsburgh Penguins" conspiracy theories. Third, Despres spends a couple seconds on his butt, trying to register what just happened. Those are my favorite moments--the obvious brain disconnect when a guy has no idea how he wound up sitting down. Sit down, Simon, sit down.