In Defense of Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres: Hockey's Complicated Relationship with Hitting

Hockey has a complex relationship with hitting, and guys like Matt Cooke are a byproduct of all that confusion

The below piece was inspired by these tweets from @67sound, who is one of the best hockey follows on Twitter:




It's all your fault. Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres? Their behaviour? It's on you, dear reader. If you've come to this site to read this blog entry, you're probably at least a casual fan of hockey. More likely, you're a dedicated fanatic. You're the NHL's target audience. So you're as much as to blame as anyone else for their behaviour. You're probably thinking to yourself this is a click-baiting article that exists solely to fire people up. Actually no, I'm trying to make a serious point here. HF Boards, this ain't.

Yesterday, Matt Cooke was suspended for seven games. Seven games in the playoffs is a very big deal as playoff games are weighted far more heavily than regular season games where the league's disciplinary body is concerned. For those of you that might have been living under a rock the last few days, here's the hit in question:

Was it an illegal hit? Yep. Am I surprised it happened? Nope. And maybe not for the reasons that you might think. That's where you, and me, that's where we come in as fans. I don't think this hit says a lot about Matt Cooke, I think it says a lot about the culture of hitting in hockey. Specifically, it says a lot about the idea of "finishing your check". If the primary goal of throwing a hit was to separate the opposing player from the puck, this type of incident wouldn't happen nearly as frequently.

In today's hockey, we expect players to veer extremely close to the edge, in fact we applaud them for doing so, but then act shocked when they happen to go over it. Watch the video again: it's just Matt Cooke getting juked out of his pants, and then trying to get a piece of Barrie on the way by. Cooke's got a history so the book's going to get thrown at him, but he did pretty much exactly what was expected of him. He's even trying to catch Barrie with his shoulder. Watch: he leans hard with his left shoulder and he just gets beat, so he instinctively kicks the leg out. Anyone that's played contact hockey has probably inadvertently done the same. How can we even consider it to be that dirty?

You know what is dirty, though? This:

Or this:

I get that Cooke has a history. But those two latter plays are malicious attempts to injure. Cooke's hit is a by-product of a guy trying to do his job (finishing your check at all costs), trying to play a role, and then having things go bad in a split-second. Lucic calmly, deliberately, tries to injure someone in both of the above videos. This is not to pick on Milan Lucic specifically, but it is a nice coincidence that the two clips he's featured in illustrate my main point.

Watch what happens in the seconds leading up to Lucic sticking both Dekeyser and Emelin: he has the puck, he takes a clean hit, and then retaliates. Very specifically, he takes a hit from a defender trying to separate him from the puck. Dekeyser's hit in particular is a great example of how I would love to see hitting continue to exist in hockey. Lucic tries to go wide and DeKeyser effectively drops the shoulder and separates big Looch from the puck. Detroit gains possession, and they're off to the races. It's perfect: that's how hockey should be physical. But Lucic, for whatever reason, can't take a hit and lashes out both times. That speaks volumes about hitting in today's game. Players seem less and less able to take good, clean hits, and all the while are encouraged to "finish their checks" at all costs.

If the message in the hockey community was "hit to get the puck back" or "hit to break up a rush" we'd get more plays like DeKeyser's. Instead so much of hitting is this faux machoism of hitting to hurt the other guy. Talking heads will often cite things like "wearing the opponent down" over a seven game series. "Gotta get the body on 'em at all costs". And then we act surprised that players flying around at warp speeds miss by a fraction of a second and someone gets hurt, often badly. That's our culture, and that's at least as much on us as it is guys like Matt Cooke.

Look at someone like Raffi Torres, or any other random "finish your check" guy on your favourite team. On Ottawa, that guy's Chris Neil. Watch a Chris Neil shift: he essentially doesn't even try to get the puck back when the other team has it, he just puts a body on someone. He always puts a body on someone, and Senators fans love it. Not coincidentally, has a reputation among fans of other teams as being a dirty player. He's also just doing his job. Hell, if someone paid me millions of dollars a year to run around and finish checks you'd bet I'd make sure every single forecheck involved me putting the body on somebody, no matter where the puck was. I bet you'd do the same. That's the culture part of it: we worship guys that "play hard", guys that finish their checks. At the end of the day, that's one thing. But to get all self righteous about the type of hit Cooke threw, or any number of hits guys like Neil, Torres, name your favourite scrappy guy throw just after the puck is gone, well, that's downright hypocritical.

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