Targeting Injured Players Hurts Everyone (But it Hurts the Injured Player Most of All)

One of the fine bloggers over at Nucks Misconduct recently noted that Jonathan Toews may be suffering from a shoulder injury, and suggested that "the Canucks should be running him more, much like they did to Al MacInnis a few years back."

To target an injured player in hopes of aggravating their injury and rendering them ineffective (or removing them from the game entirely) is not unheard of in the NHL or other contact sports -- in fact, it's a commonplace tactic that is tacitly encouraged -- but it still strikes me as inherently irresponsible and unsportsmanlike.

Admittedly, there are those whose opinion on the matter differ -- I'll assume this group likely includes Bobby Clarke and John Ferguson, who don't even think that deliberately injuring a healthy opponent with a cheap shot is inappropriate. Most hockey fans, however, will admit that if Brooks Orpik were to lay a two-handed slash on Alexander Ovechkin's ankle, that would be dirty and unacceptable in hockey, even if it would work well in the Penguin's favour. So why is trying to target a known injury in hopes of removing that player acceptable?

It's a curiously thin line to be drawn: what's the difference between attempting to injure an opponent with a dirty play to gain an advantage, and attempting to capitalize on an existing injury and aggravate it with otherwise "clean" hits for the same reason? In my opinion, there isn't much: even though the means are slightly different, the anticipated end is the same.  Someone else doing the groundwork does not give you the right to exploit the injury to reap the benefits. In other words, just because someone robs a lady and then drops her purse at your feet, it doesn't give you the right to keep the money inside of it simply because you weren't the one who mugged her.

I seem to be in the minority with this opinion. Most sports fans seem to see existing injuries as an ethical loophole, a get-out-of-jail free card that allows them to render an opposing threat useless because their plays to further injure that player appear clean.

Now, we know that if Orpik really did pull a Clarke on Ovechkin, he'd be thrown out of the game and then suspended. But if the Canucks players repeatedly work Toews with an unusually large number of punishing body checks and rough stuff after whistles -- even if they are "clean" -- should these plays be penalized?

Interestingly, the NHL Rulebook seems to suggest that they should, regardless of if Toews actually sustains a game-removing injury. Looking to the wording of a Match Penalty (Rule 21):

A match penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.

As you can see, it's deliberately attempting to injure an opponent in any manner. Let's face it, if in Game 3 Jonathan Toews is hit twice as often as he normally is, then half of those hits likely have an intent to injure, whether they are clean or not. Not all injury attempts are slashes to ankles or hits to the head -- some are seemingly normal hockey plays where you are honing in on the Achilles' heel of an opponent, hoping that his currently somewhat-useful shoulder will become a somewhat-useless one. Which is, for the record, an injury, even if you try to sugarcoat it as an existing one.

I'm not stating that all players who hit injured players should be given match penalties, because that is absurd and hardly a palatable solution. Nor am I suggesting that teams give the injured player a "free ride" and avoid hitting him, because hockey is obviously a contact sport where physical play is necessary. What I am suggesting, though, is that fans (and coaches) of teams like the Canucks should not be advocating for further injury, and the team should handle an injured player the same way they would even if they did not suspect he had an injury. Hit the player as often as you normally would, no more and no less: his injury should simply not be a factor in the equation. Earn the Cup through your team's skill and determination rather than another team's pain and misfortune. As important as winning is in sport -- and it certainly is -- health and integrity are even more valuable.

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