Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Aaron Rome, Headhunter

A lot has been made in the last couple of days about Aaron Rome's hit on Nathan Horton - about how it was late, how it was blindside, how it was a headshot - and I thought I'd give a little perspective on the hit for Vancouver fans. There's been a lot of finger-pointing (literally and figuratively) about how it's not as bad as hit X, how the Bruins always get away with worse, about how it's part of a pattern of violence and disrespect by the Canucks, about how there's a conspiracy in the NHL discipline office to get Gregory Campbell a Stanley Cup ring.

Let's step back from all that and look at the hit. A couple preliminaries:

1. Aaron Rome is generally not a dirty player. He makes his hits, he drops the gloves now and then, but we don't see him slew-footing guys, sucker-punching etc. On the other hand, we haven't seen Rome in the NHL for that long.

2. The hit was late. By TSN's measure, Rome hits Horton about a second after he releases the puck; the NHL calls anything over 1/2 a second after puck release a 'late' hit. So 1/2 a second over the limit; not the worst thing ever, but Rome clearly had time to pull up.

3. Nathan Horton was, obviously, admiring his pass when he was skating straight up the ice. This is generally considered a bad idea, and the NHL's Mike Murphy essentially said it's OK to hit a guy doing this as it's a 'North/South' hit.

Was this a 'North/South' hit? When Horton releases the puck, Rome is a full 15 feet away, and he's not straight up the ice. After the pass is made, Rome pivots, takes two steps laterally along the blueline, and is suddenly in Horton's lane. In this way, he only would have entered Horton's peripheral vision at the last second, if at all.

Nevertheless, I think Murphy's assessment of 'North/South' is fair. Though Rome came out of nowhere, the idea of the N/S vs East/West distinction seems to be the motion of the player being hit rather than the hitter. If you're skating up the ice, you need to be aware of the players between you and the net, period. If Horton holds the puck, continues skating straight down-ice with his head down, and Rome hits him, it's a legal hit. The key is not what Horton can see - it's what he can reasonably be expected to see.

Blindside hits are dangerous because attacking players moving sideways in the offensive zone are busy looking forward at the net, at defenders in front of them, etc. They only have one set of eyes and can't be expected to also watch to both sides.

North-South hits are different. The player should already be looking forward, at the goal, at the defenders in front of him, etc. Any coach will tell you that after Horton makes the pass, his next task is to size up the positioning of the defenders and decide whether he should drive the net, hang up high in the slot, or what. There's a lot going on on the ice and he needs to know what's going on if he wants to set up a play. If Horton looks down ice for even a moment, he'll see the defender stepping into his lane.

Now what about the 'hit to the head' stuff? Murphy downplayed this, too, because it's not clear that Horton's face was 'targeted or the main point of contact'. Rome gets a lot of chest, too, and though his skates come off the ice, it's not so much that you could say he jumped, or above the standard for a charging penalty, say. When Horton falls, you can see that he hits the back of his head, hard, on the ice. So it could well be that Horton's concussion was caused by the fall, not the hit.

In any case, it seems like Rome is being punished for the result, not the act. If Horton isn't injured, it's a two-minute penalty, maybe. But the NHL is sending a clear message that if you choose to break the rules, even a little, you're responsible for the outcome. Intent is less important. Rome did break the rules - he made a late hit - and players have to understand that sometimes these plays go bad.

You know what? I don't have a problem with it. The NHL is having a PR nightmare and they can fight that battle more effectively by having the punishments fit the size of the headline. It makes the public think that they're dealing with the problem, rather than these terrible attempts at explaining that these are 'hockey plays'. I wish, however, that they'd get a little better at explaining their methods.

Secondly, I can't help but wonder if the NHL is choosing to send a message because it's Aaron Rome and he's less of a star. I thought it was pretty pathetic that Alex Burrows didn't get a 1-gamer for his bite on Bergeron. What if it was Ryan Kesler making this hit? And if Daniel Paille was the guy getting hit? I have to believe the NHL would have made it a 1-game suspension. Their failure to come down on star players is embarrassing.

Hopefully Brendan Shanahan can get this house in order a bit over the summer. As a tough guy himself, I'm sure he'll understand that players and teams need a little more predictability on how the rules will be applied. If you're going to apply the rules in a certain way, put it in writing. Are you going to cut playoff suspensions by half? Put it in writing. Will you base the suspension on the act, the result, or both? Put it in writing. Are you going to make exceptions when there's a star player involved? ...I'm sure there's a diplomatic way to put it in writing.

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