Chalk it up as a lesson learned.
Not just for Matt Stajan but for every player in the NHL who has plans on carrying the puck over the opposing blue-line anytime soon.
“We don’t want to give a false sense of security they can carry the puck with their head down,” said league disciplinarian Colin Campbell after another day deliberating over a spectacular-yet-controversial hit.
“We’re trying to reduce those hits that cause concussions, yet we want to maintain hitting in the game. We knew this was going to be real hard when we looked at this project. We said we’d figure it out, but it wouldn’t come without pain.”
You don’t have to tell Stajan about pain, as the Calgary Flames centre sure looked to be in plenty of it Monday night after New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal caught him with a hellacious blast while entering the offensive zone.
At first glance, it’s likely most fans outside Madison Square Garden immediately shouted at the TV in protest. Sure the league would see this as exactly the type of collision the NHL is trying to eliminate with recently-introduced Rule 48.
Not only was Staal cleared by the league Tuesday for a hit Stajan never saw coming. He was praised for it.
“It was a good hockey hit,” said Campbell, citing the rule, which defines an illegal check to the head as “a lateral or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.”
“It didn’t fit the criteria. (Stajan) was going north and south, and Staal was defending, so there was no blindsiding. There’s no conclusive evidence the principle point of contact was the head.”
Not so callous as to imply he enjoyed seeing Stajan battered by a hit that snapped his head back violently while en route to the ice, Campbell mentioned several times Tuesday how he hoped Stajan was OK. Stajan didn’t finish Monday night’s game, and the team had the day off Tuesday and would only say he’s ‘day-to-day.’
“It’s a hard hit, and somebody got hurt, but it was legal,” said Campbell, who took several hours to review the hit frame-by-frame before determining it’s just too hard to prove Staal initiated the hit with his shoulder on Stajan’s melon.
“You feel bad, because Matt got hurt and you feel you have to do something. But on the other hand, if you were the other player, you have to ask what he did wrong.”
And while it sure looks to the average hockey fan like the same sort of hit that has earned several other players suspensions so far this year, the man with the toughest gig in hockey says it’s not.
So with the rash of concussions and subsequent addition of Rule 48, are we all just getting a little too sensitive these days?
“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and hitting is one of the attractions,” said Campbell, a tough hombre when he played in the NHL. “We are trying to reduce those hits that cause concussions and maintain hitting. We don’t want the blind-side hit. Everyone is jumping up, ‘Was this or that a head hit?’ In many cases, they’re confusing what we’ve been doing in the past.”
Of course they are, and that’s all part of the growing pains Campbell expected throughout this latest rule change.
“Anything I’ve done in this job that’s difficult and hard is worth it, but it’s never easy,” Campbell said.
“When we came out of the chute in abolishing obstruction, we were getting all kinds of criticism — we were ‘ruining the game,’ and there was a parade to the penalty box, and all the players, managers and coaches were confused.”
But it needed to be done.
“You lived the Tampa/Calgary (Stanley Cup final) series — it was a rodeo with all the hooking, holding and grabbing,” Campbell said.
“You might as well have played it a little later at the Stampede in July. In that case, we made the game better. In this case, we’ll hopefully have a lot less career-ending injuries.”
But as Stajan can attest, there’ll still be plenty of pain.
Eric Francis appears regularly as a panelist on Satellite Hotstove on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada