No Hit League? The ‘lost art’ of body checking in the NHL

No Hit League? The ‘lost art’ of body checking in the NHL
No Hit League? The ‘lost art’ of body checking in the NHL

Seventeen years and more than 1,200 games ago, Andrew Cogliano remembers how difficult it was to traverse the state of California.

The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks were three of the biggest, heaviest teams in the league. If you had to play all three in succession? Well, good luck. Not only were those teams willing to play a punishing brand of hockey, but they were all highly skilled and generally successful, too.

After a few years in Edmonton where he broke into the league, Cogliano was dealt to the Ducks as a free agent in the summer of 2011 and was part of a team that qualified for the playoffs in six straight seasons from 2012-13 through 2017-18. Those California road trips became regular intrastate battles. And they were vicious.

“My first couple years in Anaheim, physicality was one of the biggest things talked about in terms of game-planning,” Cogliano said. “We used to play L.A. and San Jose and have just wars in terms of physicality.”

There are several ways NHL teams can be physical. One of them, of course, is throwing devastating body checks that can have the effect of both separating the opponent from the puck and making him more trepidatious when he’s heading into a corner or stick-handling through the neutral zone with his head down.

No one denies that body checking is still an important part of today’s game, and can often be a key to success, particularly in the playoffs. But Cogliano admits that hitting, and the fear of being hit, has declined since he was a rookie or when he was in the thick of those California clashes. There’s less of an emphasis on that part of the game coming up as a kid and teenager through developmental leagues, he figures. And it’s noticeable when he’s on the ice, now as a veteran forward with the Colorado Avalanche.

“When kids are growing up now, they’re probably less talking about being physical and more about playing with the puck — skill and talent,” he said. “I just think that the (way the) league is now, there’s probably just more room out there.”

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon, one of the more feared hitters in the league, agreed with Cogliano’s rationale.

“The new-age player, definitely there’s more emphasis on the skill and the stick-handling and the shooting than it is on the body contact,” Dillon said. “Guys that are coming into the league, there’s definitely less physical players.”

The result, according to former Blues and Flyers coach Craig Berube, is that young players today are less equipped to deal with the potential of getting run over by those who, like the 33-year-old Dillon, 12th in the league in hits since 2015-16, still adhere to the seek-and-destroy philosophy.

“One hundred percent,” Berube said in an interview prior to being fired in St. Louis. “There’s not big hits (in junior and minor leagues). It’s just the way hockey has been played and how they’ve been taught. They don’t have much awareness for that.”

John Tortorella touched a nerve throughout the NHL community following a collision in a Flyers-Devils game last month, when Garnet Hathaway was issued a five-minute major and game misconduct for plowing into Luke Hughes, temporarily sending the young defenseman to the dressing room for repairs.

The Flyers coach was upset that linesman Brandon Grillo blew the whistle too late on a potential icing (something confirmed by replays). He argued it wasn’t Hathaway’s fault; that he was simply finishing his check on the rookie in an attempt to gain possession.

The next day, after time to reflect, Tortorella mentioned he was thankful Hughes didn’t suffer any significant injury on the play. But he also used the opportunity from his news conference pulpit to offer some deeper thoughts on the state of hitting in today’s NHL.

“That’s a problem in our league right now. Our players in this league do not put enough emphasis on making sure you’re protecting yourself from hits like that — making sure you absorb hits like that,” he said.

“We’ve kind of tried to turn this league into a No Hit League. Now people aren’t ready to be hit. I think it’s a lost art in how you take hits. I do think looking at the clip, (Hughes) thinks it’s icing.

“There is nothing wrong with the play. It shouldn’t even have been a penalty. It screams to the athletes in our game, be prepared to be hit because big hits are allowed. Nowadays, I’m not so sure because everyone puts their arms up when there’s a big hit. It makes me sick what goes on in the league here on big hits. That’s part of the game.”

Tortorella’s description of the NHL as the “No Hit League” was at least slightly hyperbolic. There are still heavy, clean body checks that go unpenalized with no supplemental discipline (see Trouba, Jacob). But he was also somewhat prescient when it comes to the officiating, as there have since been a string of controversial hits resulting in varying and, many would argue, inconsistent degrees of discipline.

That’s part of the problem, according to Dillon.

“I think the discipline is not great at all. There’s so much grey area for it,” he said. “There’s no video to every team at the start of camp — what is a penalty, and what isn’t a penalty? What is a boarding, and what isn’t a boarding? You really don’t know from day to day what the refereeing is going to be like.”

His take on the Hathaway play, and his evaluation of how the Flyers as a team have remained surprisingly competitive, would be music to the Philadelphia coach’s ears.

“I don’t think that team is the most skilled when you look at it, but it seems like they play a very disciplined, physical brand of hockey, and you know what to expect,” Dillon said. “Garnet Hathaway is coming on the forecheck. You’re probably getting hit. You’re not excited to go back for that puck.”

Jeff O’Neill, an NHL veteran of 11 seasons who retired in 2007 and is now an analyst with TSN in Canada, said referees are much too quick to penalize the hitter rather than consider a player who might be putting himself in a vulnerable position. And, naturally, players don’t want to leave their team shorthanded, so why take the chance?

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s got a tinge of European World Championships, where if it’s a big, thunderous check, all of a sudden an arm seems to go up and it’s boarding somehow,” O’Neill said. “That Luke Hughes hit, I think, was an example — you put yourself in a goofy position like that and you get rocked. It’s not a penalty. It’s your fault.”

Jared Bednar, the Avalanche coach, also heard Tortorella’s comments, calling them “pretty accurate.”

“Just because the game isn’t as maybe physical as it used to be in some ways doesn’t mean that there’s still not going to be a physical play here and there,” Bednar said. “I think you have to be, as a player, prepared for it. You have to be equipped to be able to defend yourself in certain ways.”

Bednar illustrated a recent example. In a Dec. 5 Avalanche game against the Ducks, 22-year-old defenseman Bowen Byram was rocked by Anaheim’s Max Jones, a result of Byram having his head down while carrying the puck.

Both players played a role in the unfortunate result.

It was a “clean hit,” Bednar said, “because (Byram) holds onto the puck trying to make a play and he gets hit. Our guys took exception to it — which is fine, I’m glad they do — but I think Bo, in that instance, has to expect to be taking a hit if you’re going to hang on to it to try and make a skilled play that’s going to set up a scoring chance.”

The referees let that one go. But that’s not always the case.

It’s difficult to quantify whether there is more of a tendency to penalize hitters for clean checks nowadays — arguments about refereeing will present as long as there is a frozen rubber disc on ice — but players these days, particularly younger ones, are more apt to put themselves in positions that could be dangerous. That’s just the way they’ve been brought up.

“They’re going to just go in there and put themselves in vulnerable positions because they know they can,” Berube said. “There’s just not a lot of big contact anywhere anymore. There’s no fear or anything of getting hit in a position that you could get hurt.”

Referee Dave Jackson avoids a collision during the 2006 playoffs. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

That’s only made an official’s job more difficult, according to Dave Jackson, an NHL referee from 1989 to 2019 who is currently the rules analyst for ESPN. It’s particularly trying for officials who have been around both before and after the crackdown on certain types of hits.

“What made it tough on the referees was players turning their back when they go to get hit, and they get projected forward violently into the boards. As a referee, you have to decide how much of it was the guy making the hit, and how much of it was the player turning his back, and was it unavoidable. Was the guy already committed to the hit when the player turned his back? Back in the day, guys knew they were going to get hit when they were being followed into the boards, and they’d do everything they could to prevent that hit.”

And as younger officials join the league, they’re more on the lookout for illegal checks to the head and hits from behind, because, like the players, they’re used to that sort of thing not being permissible under any circumstances.

“For newer officials that come in they have basically their whole career had the illegal check to the head rule,” Jackson said. “I think it becomes more second nature to them to be able to immediately pick up on that the head was contacted (or if) the head was the primary point of contact. But, it’s never an easy call, and it happens in a microsecond.”

Of course, many of the changes in the NHL and developmental leagues were made in an attempt to reduce serious injuries to the head or spine. To hockey’s credit, those types of hits aren’t nearly as prevalent as they were a decade ago.

Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer came up through the junior ranks as a coach of the Detroit Whalers and Kitchener Rangers from 1995-96 through 2007-08. He observed “a time where there was multiple paralysis injuries for hits around and along the boards,” he said.

Then, in his second year as an NHL coach in 2009-10 with the Florida Panthers, he was on the bench when David Booth got creamed by the Flyers’ Mike Richards in open ice. The play — which would be viewed as a predatory hit to the head today — went unpenalized, and Richards was not suspended.

It was, at that moment, a legal play.

“The league made steps to legislate that out,” DeBoer said of the Richards hit. “I think they’ve looked at really dangerous situations where there can be significant injury, and tried to make penalties and put the emphasis on the person hitting to avoid those situations. … So, you’ve got a generation of kids growing up knowing that. Is your guard down a little bit? Sure, because those hits aren’t going on as much anymore. I think that’s a good thing.”

As a result, there’s less of an emphasis in today’s game from at least some coaches on their players finishing checks and throwing hits.

“I’d be lying if I said (otherwise),” DeBoer said. “The physicality in the game is always going to be a part of it, and it’s a great part of the game, but it’s definitely less. I remember coming into the league and coaches would expect 40 hits in a game, and track that as a stat as important as shots or scoring chances.”

Jeff O’Neill sports a black eye during the 2002 Eastern Conference final. O’Neill says officiating has played a role in the decline of hitting in the NHL. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images / NHLI)

O’Neill remembers those days, too. He can recall sitting in meetings with an upset coach who would show the team “punishment videos” of players not finishing their hits when they had a chance.

“It was titled ‘the drive-by,’ which basically meant you didn’t care and you weren’t intense if you skated by a guy with the puck and didn’t hit him,” he said.

It’s a fine line for the league, of course, trying to protect the players while maintaining entertainment value. Fans still love big hits. If the rules are too stringent, the NHL risks worsening the overall product — while also potentially putting the likes of Dillon, Trouba or others who need to throw big hits to be effective, on the unemployment line.

For his part, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday in Dallas that the state of hitting (or lack thereof) in the game today hasn’t set off any alarm bells in the league office.

“You have some views that say there’s not enough hitting, and others saying that there’s too much, or they don’t like a certain kind,” he said. “Which is why we tend to not overreact. We tend to look at what’s going on, look at the total body of work. … Sometimes you see these things in waves.”

He continued: “No two instances are identical. What looks like a hit from behind in the first instance may be shoulder-on-shoulder, may be a last-second turn. … We want to have the game safe. There’s no question about it. But we also want to be judicious as we tinker with the game because there’s always unintended consequences.”

Tortorella, though, strongly declared that he doesn’t like the current direction of the league. That he didn’t seem to get much pushback on his comments — from around the NHL, on social media or elsewhere — showed he’s not alone.

“I watch some games some nights and I think, this is not even interesting to me,” O’Neill said. “There’s no animosity. I don’t expect a line brawl, but it’s part of the lure of the sport. It’s a physical sport.”

The Athletic’s Saad Yousuf contributed to this article.

(Top photo: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)