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Dangerous trip forced Nichol to seek revenge
Mark Spector, National Post
Published: Saturday, December 23, 2006


Colin Campbell had no choice. For posterity's sake -- and to satisfy those concerned outsiders whose only window into hockey comes at times like these -- the NHL's disciplinary czar had to hand Nashville's Scott Nichol a ninegame suspension yesterday, the longest since Dale Purinton's 10-gamer for eyegouging in October, 2005.

After all, Nichol had punched Buffalo defenceman Jaroslav Spacek from behind Thursday night in Nashville.

Spacek was uninjured, but Nichol had dredged up some unwanted history, and he'll pay dearly for that.

The Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore footage is already back on TV. Enlightened writers are drawing parallels between the two incidents, even though there might not be a single, viable common thread, short of the fact one player punched another.

And anyone with the temerity to suggest that Spacek, to a large degree, contributed to the incident will be chucked on to that pile of dinosaur hockey men who simply can't handle the fact that they're not playing the game the same was in 2006 as they did in 1976.

Well, call me Dino.

In case you didn't see the play: Nichol charges full-speed to the net; Spacek trips him at the top of the crease; Nichols careens into the post at full speed. It's a regrettable play a defenceman makes at the last second in a sport where things happen fast. Yet, it was obvious to Spacek and everyone watching -- he had dangerously imperilled Nichol with less than five minutes to play in a game the Sabres already led 5-2.

The whistle blew, and everyone in the rink knew that Nichol -- if he got up -- would be coming after Spacek. That's where today's National Hockey League culture took over.

Years ago, there were very few hits from behind into the boards. Yet hockey adopted the hitting from behind penalty.

An obvious solution to a dangerous practice, right? So then, why are there more hits from behind today than there ever were before the rule was invoked?

This is why: Because hockey players have and always will exploit every rule in the book as far as they can in whatever direction benefits them.

The same way goaltenders, left unchecked, expanded their equipment exponentially, skaters soon realized that they could draw penalties by facing the boards, leaving only their backside available to be hit by the opponent. Somehow, the threat of paralysis took a back seat to the potential of a power play.

"When I played," a former NHL defenceman from the 1980s and '90s once told me, "if a guy stood there facing the boards, it was an open invitation to paste him in the back."

So nobody did it. When hockey people talk about the players policing themselves, this is what they mean.

Today, we have a league full of defencemen who operate two feet from the boards in what was once no-man's land, on a premise that their predecessors scoffed at. That they can put themselves in a position to be driven head first into the boards, but trust that the rule book will protect them against it. We see a handful of hits from behind every night now -- way more than we used to see.

Inevitably, some player will make the wrong decision in the heat of the battle, like Brooks Orpik did in checking Erik Cole last season, and a neck injury will occur. But remember, hockey players are\ moving faster than NBA, NFL or pro baseball players. Contact is inherent.

With hundreds of split-second decisions being made at high speed -- shaped by pain, emotions, and perceived slight -- players will make the wrong decision now and again.

Obviously Nichol made the wrong decision by punching Spacek from behind.

Just as Spacek made the wrong decision in his dangerous trip of Nichol. But that's where the new culture is at fault.

Whoever heard of a situation where, in the dying minutes of a near blowout, a player commits a career-threatening infraction on an opponent, then stands three feet away with his back to the player as the enraged gets up, smoke billowing from his ears?

Spacek has played more than 500 games in the league. He knew what he did to Nichol was wrong, and he knew that he could protect himself. He knows how it works.

Instead, he left it all up to the referees and the league.

As for Nichol and the inevitable comparison to Bertuzzi, this was heat of the moment. Bertuzzi-Moore was not.

When Moore originally hit Naslund that night in Denver,Moore knew that -- right or wrong -- he might have to fight his way to the bench. After delivering a head shot to Vancouver's captain, Moore and everyone else recognized that his late-game mistake may bring out the worst in the Canucks. So Moore struck a defensive posture, and no one was hurt that night, other than Naslund.

That's hockey, like it or not. It is a sometimes dangerous mix of speed and emotion, and we like that about the game. It is one of the toughest of all the sports. We like that too.

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