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Doug Weight’s hit on Brandon Sutter: How should we decide

Monday, October 27, 2008

Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was incensed that the NHL declined to hand out a suspension to Doug Weight for his open-ice check on Brandon Sutter. He should be. A bright young rookie with a terrific pedigree sustained an injury with career-ending potential. Combine that with the Hurricanes’ struggles since their Stanley Cup victory three seasons ago and the knee problems of stars like Rod Brind’amour and Justin Williams, and you can understand exactly where Rutherford is coming from.

On the other side of the equation, you have Doug Weight. He’s a veteran NHLer who has contributed his saucer pass to some great hockey teams, including the 2002 American Olympic team that won the silver medal and the 2006 Stanley Cup squad in Carolina. Everyone writing about this incident – and even Rutherford – speaks to Weight’s class and upstanding character. No one believes the devastating results of this hit were intentional.

In the middle, wedged between Brandon Sutter and Doug Weight, is the issue of the hit itself. Was it clean? We all seem to agree that it was. From Matt Karash to the CasonBlog to Red & Black Hockey over at Kukla’s Korner, the Carolina Hurricanes faithful acknowledge that the hit was good according to NHL standards.

Should it be a legal hit? I’ll let the debate over at Puck Daddy decide that.

I will say this. There is a double standard among the National Hockey League, its journalists, and its fans. We see a situation like this one involving Sutter and Weight, and we spend countless hours debating the rules, player safety, personal integrity, etc.

And it certainly has all the components of a great Greek tragedy – stalwart veteran inadvertently takes down young rookie of excellent bloodlines just on the cusp of a career. Both go down in flames as the rabid Toronto media salivates. The rest of the hockey world shakes its fists and blames Gary Bettman, the KHL, and goons everywhere.

If Brandon Sutter didn’t end up in the hospital, would we still be talking about this hit? If he wasn’t sired by a one of the six Sutter brothers, now a coach for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, would we care so much? If the violator weren’t the well-respected Doug Weight, would we be so quick to judge this hit a clean one?

For the answers, let’s rewind to that 2006 playoff season. To be specific, to the first round at a game in Buffalo between the Sabres and the Flyers. A defenseman known more for his spin-o-rama than his hitting finds a young rookie forward wandering into neutral ice with his head down. He goes for the big strike, knocking the forward onto his back. Clearly dazed, that forward would sustain a concussion and drop off his production drammatically during the next season.

In Buffalo, they called it “the hit,” and it ran as a clip to pump up the crowd at HSBC Arena. It circulated wildly this spring as bloggers tried to excite San Jose about the piece they acquired at the deadline.

What if RJ Umberger never skates again after that hit? What if the star Campbell had received that hit instead of delivering it? What if it happens in the major markets of Toronto or Montreal?

It’s time to stop basing our opinions about the cleanliness of a hit on the players involved and the physical injury sustained. Doug Weight’s good intentions don’t lessen the impact of his actions on Brandon Sutter. RJ Umberger’s relative health in the aftermath doesn’t make Brian Campbell’s hit any less dangerous.

And looking at that play purely, I suggest the NHL take a long, hard look at whether the rewards outweight the risks. I say no.

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