As told to: Greg Thomas
I played the game hard and no matter where I played, I played to win. But I’ll be honest: I always played to hit someone. That was my number one goal. Of course, I wanted to score goals, but when I was a Penguin and a Ranger I always looked for the big opportunity to hit someone. I knew the crowd loved it. I knew the team loved it. I knew I could rattle the other team and knock them off their game. I was always looking for the big hit. Today, I look at the game and guys don’t even hit each other. They stop and go the other way, forget about finishing their checks. Some teams, like the Winnipeg Jets, they play physical hockey but a lot of teams on the east coast don’t play hard. They don’t even hit. I think the reason Los Angeles won last year is because they just outhit the Rangers. I like watching the Western Conference teams because they play all-out hockey. The Eastern Conference style is more like a chess game. You don’t just go out and play. That is why I think hockey was different when I came in. I don’t think we had a system but maybe I just didn’t listen to Al Arbour.
I live in Florida, so I go and watch the Panthers play sometimes. Every time there’s a big hit, the fans expect a penalty. It was the same thing when I played in Russia during the lockout. If a hit created a loud noise, there’d be a penalty. The refs wouldn’t even look to see what had happened. They just reacted to the noise. I see the same thing now in the NHL. Any time a player gets injured from a hit, there’s an expectation that the player will be punished, regardless if it is a clean hit or not. I think it’s about money. The league and the owners want to protect their assets. So, it isn’t that it’s more difficult to hit in today’s game but the vicious, clean hits that existed when I played are now considered dirty.
I played the game hard and no matter where I played, I played to win. But I’ll be honest: I always played to hit someone. That was my number one goal.
I was taught to look for the guys skating with their heads down and hit them. I was reading the play; that is how I hit people. By watching what was going on in front of me, I tried to sense what was going to happen. Where is the pass going to go? How is the guy going to receive the pass? Will he have his head down? What is the moment before the moment? This is the art of the hit. It’s no different than scoring goals: being in the right place at the right time. Hitting is all timing. Simply, the best time to find someone to hit is when he has his head down.
But this is the kind of hit they want to eliminate. Lindros, for example, was trying to kick the puck up with his feet when I hit him. Today, they’d probably say I was aiming for his head. But I didn’t even think about hitting his head. There was never a time in my life as a player that I aimed at someone’s head. I always aimed for the body. That’s hockey. You don’t aim for the knees or the right shoulder or the head. You aim for the body. Sometimes you clip someone with a shoulder pad or something. It happens but not on purpose. The way the game is called these days, if a guy is in a vulnerable position at the moment of the hit, you have to stop. But sometimes it is impossible to do that. A lot of guys don’t want to get suspended. They want you to be in control, which is impossible. You can anticipate what a player will do but, really, you don’t know.
I wish the game was more casual about who is who, and people didn’t really care about who you hit: Crosby, Malkin, whomever. If you get crosschecked you crosscheck them back, it gets the other team rattled and they want to kill you. And that’s good for your team, it’s entertaining. When Lemieux crosschecked me and I went after him, I didn’t really care who he was. He was just a guy who crosschecked me.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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