The Phaneuf-Okposo hit: Split-second of dirty

Was Dion Phaneuf's hit on Kyle Okposo dirty? Ultimately, yes. He led with his elbow. End of story. (Seriously. Watch it again. Which part of Phaenuf makes contact with Okposo's face? Watch Phaneuf the whole way. It's hard to skate up to and hit someone without getting your arm up; but that's what NHLers are supposed to know how to do.)

Update: Katie Strang reports Okposo has a "mild concussion" and is cleared to join the team flight. Full video of the entire chaotic sequence here. (Thanks, bkblades.)

Phaneuf lined Okposo up from across the ice and -- in one of the unspoken crimes that often accompanies these hits (including a few of Scott Stevens' most famous ones -- see #8 and #5 in this montage), he let a teammate (or two) set his victim up for him. The backchecking Flame pushed Okposo off course and even more directly into defensive partner Mark Giordano's path, which Phaneuf happily entered while leading making contact with his elbow. [Edit: Maybe "led" is the wrong word. He didn't travel across the ice with his elbow out, obviously, but at the moment that matters his arm left his core to make contact, which tells me he was in the process of delivering a dirty hit. If you can't make the hit with your body compact (that includes knees, btw), perhaps it's not a hit you should be making.]


Should Okposo have "kept his head up?" According to tradition, yes. But people who apply this hockey truism to every hit to the head somehow forget that when you're rushing up ice with two pursuers (the backchecking forward and Giordano -- who was actually in position and closer to Okposo), and the puck gets caught up in tight or in your skates, you're going to look down, and you might not be expecting a third man to be waiting as the predator. A third man who makes a habit of leaving his position just for the sake of such hits.

 

With his elbow.

Of course, if it's the much-heralded Dion Franken-Phaneuf, maybe you should expect it. Maybe against such teams, you should expect every 1-on-2 battle to become an opportunistic 1-on-3 for a guy like Phaneuf. So Phaneuf skated across the ice, leading with his backside, elbow cocked, and when Okposo arrived, Phaneuf put his elbow out and planted it into Okposo's head.

Granted, it's a game of milliseconds. The hit wouldn't have happened quite this way if the backchecker hadn't knocked Okposo off course. And from the time Phaneuf left his side of the ice to the time of impact was under three seconds. From the time Okposo was hit by the backchecker to the time of impact was under 1.5 seconds.

That doesn't change that he led made contact with his elbow.

And you know what? If you can't make a millisecond-decision hit without keeping your elbow into your body, maybe you aren't physically adept enough to be throwing such hits. Scott Stevens generally kept his arm in. Last year Doug Weight -- who was 1-on-1 on Flames coach Brent Sutter's son, not 3-on-1 like Phaneuf -- kept his arm in.

Regardless of the split-second factors and the physical nuances of proper hitting form, though, when Phaneuf makes a preseason hit like this -- not open-ice hits made on his own skating merit, but rather hits set up by the convenience of two teammates funneling a victim into a hopeless situation -- you have to wonder about the proverbial "respect" that players alternately say is or isn't there.

You also have to wonder why Phaneuf, who makes a habit of such hits and clearly thinks himself a bad-ass, was protected by his teammates (usually Giordano) every time an Islander tried to fight him according to hockey's nebulous "Code." If Phaneuf is god's gift to hockey's physicality, why can he not handle his own battles? And if "it's only preseason" and he shouldn't risk himself for some fight in some meaningless game, why can he risk the neurological health of one of the game's young stars in the same meaningless contest?

That's where I am after watching each segment of the video countless times. There will be varying opinions on this episode, just as there are varying opinions on every hit and on the direction and degree of gratuitous violence acceptable in this game. But for me, when a puck carrier already has two players defending him, "keep your head up" is not an acceptable answer to a third guy skating ass-and-elbow first across the ice to take his head off. Not in a split-second, high-speed game such as this.

As far as where the hard-to-define line is with this stuff, it reminds me of Stevens' famous hit against Slava Kozlov, which was legal and arm-in (take note, Dion). (By the way, I loved Stevens, but I also believe his reputation gave him liberties others wouldn't have gotten.) In that hit, Stevens not only takes out Kozlov but also his own defensive partner, Scott Niedermayer. Of course, it's Kozlov who receives the arm-in shoulder to the head, while Niedermayer narrowly avoids catastrophe. That hit has always made me wonder: If you take out your own defensive partner with your big hit, are you really achieving one of our cliched ideals of man-on-man combat? Or are you just a punk taking advantage of a guy who's already in battle with your partner? (I'm speaking to the philosophical intent of this sport, not to the very real in-game and in-series strategic value to Stevens' hit on Kozlov.)

More directly: Is there a point where the definition of "legal" needs to be changed because the rink is the same size but today's players are so much bigger and so much faster than Bobby Clarke? If so, should the powers that be maybe discuss that when they're not fighting amongst themselves?

Anyway, vote in the poll. Tell me I'm insane or I'm too lenient. I don't care. The thing I hate in debates like these is how often we rest our arguments on ancient hockey cliches, rather than carefully considering the nuanced factors at hand. We argue over whether things fit the existing rulebook, but when it comes time to adjust that existing rulebook to reflect new realities, the league and its rudderless union go dark.

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