Friday, March 16, 2012

Kronwalling Dissection #1

I know it's after the fact, but I'm analyzing this hit because I think it'll help people better understand what is and isn't okay in the game of hockey and why. And to some extent, what should and shouldn't be allowed and why. And let's live in a hypothetical world where we don't know what the disciplinarian decision on this hit is until the very end.

Niklas Kronwall is a great defenseman. He is also very controversial. Kronwall is a prominent figure in today's generation of big hitters in the NHL. While Kronwall may not hit as often as some other hitters, his hits are brutal. So much so his name is now a verb that is in my post title. So much so that my wife may love Kronwall more than me. She'll read this post title and say "That's my boy!"

 March 6th, 2012 - Detroit @ Philadelphia. 
I would like to give a shout out to Robert Soderlind. He posts videos on YouTube through his channel Hockey Web Caster. You can find his Twitter feed here. I'll be using his video here to analyze, and based on their quality, I think I'll be using his videos a lot.

So here's the hit we'll be analyzing.

Brutal. Absolutely brutal. Terrifyingly so. I would like to say that Jakub Voraceck got up, dusted himself off, and rejoined the play. I would also like to say that after the whistle blew, the Flyers bench took turns shaking Kronwall's hand and congratulating him on a text book body check. What I have to say instead is Voraceck suffered a serious hit, possibly was knocked unconscious, and certainly was dazed and injured on the play, and that the Philadelphia Flyers were really really mad about it. And this is a team who signed Chris Pronger.

So let's set the scene: The Red Wings have some pressure in Philly's zone. They're trying to get the puck out and start a rush up ice. They wrap the puck around the boards and Voraceck goes to scoop it up and turn up ice. Unbeknownst to him Niklas Kronwall, who is apparently the creature who stalked Arnold Schwarzenegger through the jungles of South America, locks onto his target and prepares to deliver his classic hit: The Kronwalling. 

Vorececk moves up ice with his head down. Kronwall closes the distance with a couple of short, strong strides and lights up Voraceck like Nikola Tesla. Inevitably with one of these hits, the cries come: "PENALTY! SUSPENSION! PEPPERONI AND GREEN PEPPERS!", assuming this hit interrupted someone's pizza order, and they had good taste in pizza toppings. And in this day and age, watching Colt McCoy get destroyed and Max Pacioretty meeting a steel pole care of Zdeno Chara, everyone is hyper sensitive about hits to the head and head injuries.

And quick sidebar (I plan on talking more about it later) I think professional sports are right in trying to crack down on illegal, dirty and excessively dangerous hits that cause concussions and neck injuries and I think the NHL has done an especially good job addressing this issue. I also agree with fans who want to balance those goals with keeping hard, physical play in football and hockey.
Was this hit illegal?
Well, let's address the two major rules we need to in order to analyze this hit. These definitions come from NHL.com

I know you'd like to say something, Matt, but you'll have to wait your turn
Rule 42.1 - Charging: A minor or major penalty can be issued if "...a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner. Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner." Generally speaking, more than 3 strides constitutes charging, the idea being that more than 3 strides gives a player the ability to get a running start from one end of the ice to the ice and level another player. And that's bad. 
Rule 48.1 - Illegal Check to the Head: "A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position prior to or simultaneously with the hit or head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered" (Emphasis mine)

I emphasized these points not just because they're important, but also because I want to expand and clarify them. "Where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact". Brendan Shanahan, the man in charge with handing out suspensions and fines in the NHL, has explained previously that the head being targeted can mean that the checker either intentionally hit the opponent in the head and was trying to do so, or the checker was recklessly not taking enough care to avoid hitting the opponent in the head. 

The whole part about the opponent putting themselves in a "vulnerable position prior to or simultaneous with the hit" is pretty simple. If you're about to be checked, shoulder to shoulder, in a way that won't hurt you (or is at least very unlikely to hurt you) and you suddenly bend over because you found a penny on the ice, and your opponent smashes your head into the boards, that's your fault so long as the incoming player doesn't have sufficient time to adjust his check to avoid hitting you in the head. So, let's ask ourselves the following questions with Kronwall's hit. 

#1: Was Voraceck's head targeted AND the principal point of contact?
No. Watch the video from 47 seconds to to 58 seconds. You can argue (and the commentators certainly try) that Voraceck's head was the principal point of contact. Keep in mind the refs are watching this at full speed and may not have seen it as clearly as we were. But, the other half of that question is was his head targeted? No, it wasn't. Kronwall didn't try to hit Voraceck in the head, nor was he being "reckless" in trying to avoid it. If you watch from 46 to 48 seconds in the video, Kronwall's shoulder level doesn't drastically change. He's trying to throw a good, hard body check. Because his hit doesn't satisfy both criteria, we have to say no.

#2: Did Voraceck put himself in a "vulnerable position prior to or simultaneous with the check?"
Yes. Watch from 1:09 in the video to 1:11. Voraceck's head is down. That's a huge no-no. You do not move up ice with your head down. You don't. Ever. At 1:11, when Voraceck's head is finally looking forward, Kronwall has already committed himself to delivering the check. As fast as hockey is, as quickly as this play is developing, neither player can react fast enough to change what's about to happen. If Voraceck starts the play with his head up, this hit doesn't happen. 

#3: Did Kronwall commit a "charging" or any other penalty?
No. If you watch that video, you will see that Kronwall does not leave his feet, something which he has arguably done in the past and is decried as a result. I will defend that later on, I bet, but in this hit we can agree, he didn't leave his feet. Nor did he take more than the generally accepted 3 strides before delivering the hit. It's not charging. He didn't elbow him in the head. He didn't punch Voraceck in the head. No elbowing or roughing. 

#4: Was Voraceck seriously injured?
Unfortunately yes. I have never heard anything about Jakub Voraceck being a dirty player. I wouldn't ever put him in Claude Lemeiux territory. It's bad that he was knocked out of the game, I was happy to see him doing well in post-game interviews (more on that later).

Conclusion: There was no penalty committed on the play. No hit to the head. No charging. No elbowing. No roughing. A player was hurt in the middle of a legal (arguably borderline, but legal none the less) body check. I argued at the time Kronwall deserved maybe a fine and a warning from the league. Brendan Shanahan decided no discipline was necessary, and I honestly agree with that too. Maybe Mr. Shanahan made his ruling based on Mr. Voraceck's comments post game
"I think it was clean...I saw him standing on the blue line and I was kind of naive and thought he was going to back up. It was a tough hit to take, but I think it was a clean hit from my side. It was my bad, and I think those hits should stay in the game"

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