Contact sports have been getting a lot of bad press lately, between the revelations that the NFL's New Orleans Saints had a bounty system for knocking players out of games and the cheap shot and suspensions that have made the first round of the NHL playoffs look, at times, like scenes out of Slap Shot, though Ogie Ogilthorpe has yet to appear on anyone's roster.
Most recently, Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes took on the role of villain, demolishing Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks with a bodycheck that was late, high, illegal and, most significantly, hard. He got a 25-game suspension for his efforts and was so vilified in Chicago that the Coyotes general manager said it was as if he'd murdered a bus full of children. The hit on Hossa came a year to the day after he lined up Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook behind the net and tried to knock him into next week as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, a play that didn't earn him a suspension of any sort. But before you feel too bad for the Blackhawks, remember that their own defenceman, Duncan Keith reacted to a high bodycheck a few weeks ago by elbowing Canucks forward Daniel Sedin in the face, knocking him out action with a concussion.
Torres had the book thrown at him because he's a repeat offender, notorious for hurting people with big, borderline and sometimes illegal checks over the years, many of which did not earn him suspensions. Why not? They weren't considered illegal at the time.
The Phoenix forward has the misfortune to still be playing at a time when the rules he grew up - and made it to the NHL -under, are changing at unprecedented speed. Former New Jersey Devils defenceman Scott Stevens is likely headed for the Hall of Fame thanks, in part, to a history of hits that were as bad or worse as Torres on Hossa, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya among his victims.
You hear a lot about how players don't respect each other anymore, but hitting to hurt is nothing new in football or hockey or many other sports. If bodychecking is just meant to separate players from the puck, why do coaches implore players to finish their checks when the puck's already gone, which won't warrant a penalty if delivered within half a second of the release? To hurt - not injure - your opponent and make him rush future decisions in hopes of not getting hit again. Why launch yourself at a wide receiver hauling in a high pass while he's still in mid-air when you could just as easily tackle him once he hits the ground? To make him reconsider whether to jump at all for a similar pass in the future.
Contact sports are full of instances of players trying to cause damage. But usually, the target isn't a shoulder, leg or even a skull. It's your opponent's psyche. As the always quotable New York Yankees great Yogi Berra reportedly said, "Baseball is 90 per cent mental – the other half is physical."