How can the NHL solve a problem like a hit by Brooks Orpik?

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SANTA CRUZ, April 3, 2014 — When Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik blew up Chicago captain Jonathan Toews with a devastating hit Sunday night, the NHL was again faced with how to react when star players are targeted with brutal, but legal hits. There was no immediate response from the Blackhawks players on the ice at the time, no penalty was assessed, and the game continued on without Toews, who will reportedly miss the remainder of the regular season.

When the period ended, NBC cut to their intermission show where the ever polarizing Mike Milbury pontificated on the hit. Milbury, who is clearly not a Brooks Orpik fan, decried the lack of retaliation by Chicago, and showed disdain for Orpik’s unwillingness to answer for his actions by fighting. Milbury went back to the incident against Boston where Orpik targeted a Bruins player with another borderline hit, and was then was sucker punched later in the game by Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton. Orpik was not expecting to fight, and was knocked unconscious.

There have been predatory hitters in the game forever. Darius Kasparitis, Scott Stevens and Bryan Marchment are a few who come to mind from recent years, but they all fought when challenged. Orpik’s hits are usually clean, as in within the rules, but they are savage collisions, often resulting in injury.

What responsibility, if any, should Orpik have to fight if he is playing within the rules? All parties can agree that hockey is a fast, violent game. Delivering and receiving hits is a reality of participation. NBC analyst Keith Jones suggested that, if someone were to jump Orpik for the Toews hit, it needed to happen immediately, without premeditation. The principle would appear to be that any severe hit on a star player, however rule book legal it may be, will not be tolerated. It illustrates the age old hockey cliché of players policing themselves when the officials, and the rules they enforce, do not.

In the normal course of NHL play, a hit like the one Orpik laid on Toews Sunday night would bring swift and violent justice. Orpik would have to drop the gloves and defend himself, with the message being sent that he becomes less likely to go after other players in the future. Orpik, so far, has shown a brazen unwillingness to fight when challenged, which led to the ugly scene against the Bruins earlier in the year. By Keith Jones’ logic, a Blackhawks player needed to jump Orpik immediately following his hit on their captain and, if not, then Orpik wins, and Chicago has to just suck it up and take it.

The league will have to look at ways to deal with players like Orpik, not only for the safety of other players, but for Orpik and others like him as well. If players feel as though the rules will no longer protect them, it will not be long before vigilante justice reigns on the ice, and nobody wants that.

In the meantime, Keith Jones appears to have it right when he says that any retaliation for a borderline hit ought to be meted out in the moment, rather than later in the game. It is not a perfect solution, but it will keep an uneasy peace while the NHL figures out how to handle hits which are both legal and predatory.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what hes up to by checking out his website.

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