“I Changed The Whole Game, Man”: Thoughts on Zac Rinaldo, Brutality, and Hockey in the NHL

Image c/o Amy Irvin

Image c/o Amy Irvin

The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins played a hockey game on Tuesday night. It was your average, run of the mill game with the Flyers up 1-0 on a Luke Schenn goal scored with around seven minutes left in the first period. In spite of the score, the Penguins absolutely controlled play. There’s no doubt about it. They were faster, they were hungrier, they won upwards of 95% of the puck battles, and they peppered the bejesus out of goaltender Ray Emery outshooting the Orange and Black by a 17-3 margin. In just one, single, solitary period.

Then something happened. Something we’ve seen before. Something we’ll see again. Something that wasn’t good. Something that was, by nearly all accounts, ugly. Something that happens frequently in today’s game and something that displayed, in a nutshell, what is wrong with the game of hockey today. Philadelphia forward Zac Rinaldo did something that he and other players like him tend to do in games when they play which is levy a heavy, vicious, utterly unnecessary, and completely illegal body check to the back of the shoulder area on Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang. The hit sent Letang into the boards, his head making contact with the glass, and then tumbling to the ice no doubt seeing stars as players from both teams began to congregate just a few feet away and engage in the pushing and shoving and punching that normally follows these types of brutal plays.

The result of this play was a well-deserved five minute major for boarding and a game misconduct for Rinaldo and, worse, an untimely exit for one of the better and more exciting players when the puck is on his stick (who also has a history of concussion issues) in Letang. What happened after that play, after Letang and Rinaldo left the ice for the remainder of the contest, was a shift in the game.

The shift was dynamic. The game was somehow different from before. What was quickly becoming a game we’ve all witnessed before was now a game. The scales began to balance. The shot totals started to even out. Energy and anger and frustration and passion and blood and guts and fists and bodies and hatred and life were now abounding in this game that before was just another Tuesday night contest between one team that was clearly world’s better than the other. All because of one play. One hit. One decision.

63:57 in minutes played. 59-34 in penalty minutes. 32-31 in faceoffs. 40-31 in hits. 40-35 in shots. 3-2 in goals. All of these numbers and yet none of that quantifies anything about the game. There are no spreadsheets or advanced stats that can accurately describe what happened Tuesday night or can explain why the game took a sudden turn.

All people will continue to talk about in the wake of that game is the goonery and brutality of hockey and why the game needs to change because the hit was ugly and unnecessary and awful and how it took a skilled player out of the lineup. “The game needs to change” and “players need to have respect for one another out there” and “hits like these have no place” and “fighting or face-punching shouldn’t be a part of the sport since none of the other major sports in America it” are the types of things we’ll read over the coming weeks. But you know what, if you watched the game, and really watched the game, what you saw was entertaining.

It was fun. It was full of back and forth, fast paced, physical hockey. There were fights. There was pushing and shoving. This was hockey. Why even bother having 28 other teams? When the Penguins and Flyers play each other, things like this happen and while we can all agree that what Zac Rinaldo did was dirty and awful and he should and will be suspended for it; he was right. For better or worse, right in the grander sense of the word or right for all the wrong reasons, he absolutely, unequivocally, and undeniably changed that game.

And while we all love this game and want to see it succeed and be accepted by those in the mainstream instead of ridiculed, we also must accept that as long as this is a sport that is played on a 200 foot by 85 foot sheet of ice surrounded by unforgiving boards and glass where men skate around at a feverish pace, crashing into each other at full-speed, all while trying to put a small, vulcanized rubber disc into a four by six opening with another man attempting to stop it, that these types of things will happen. We also must accept that we enjoy when these things happen. We must do that begrudgingly, but we must do it. We must accept it because of what follows.

As much as we love the skill portion of this game, we love the brutality of it too. We love all of it. We love the beautiful nature of a backhand toe-drag or a no-look pass or a wicked slap shot that hits nothing on the way in from the point. We also love the big hits that send players flying but may end careers and the flurry of fisticuffs that occur when someone has crossed the line but may send a man into a lifelong battle with post-concussion syndrome or cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We love when games devolve into something archaic and barbaric and become little more than a boxing match on skates or a circus even. Why? Because it’s entertaining and whether we like or want to admit it, we like to be entertained.

I don’t like what Zac Rinaldo did to Kris Letang. It was deplorable and despicable and I hope he doesn’t play another second until he makes a real, honest and concerted effort to change his approach to the game. I hope he learns to respect the sport and the others who play it alongside him and against him and becomes more than a guy who can throw his weight around and injures other players… But only to a point. Because you know what? Every now and again I want to see what happened Tuesday night after that hit. I want to see a game spiral out of control. I want to see anger and frustration and passion and two teams that absolutely hate each other get on the ice and watch that anger and frustration and hatred and passion bubble and rise for 60-plus minutes until it boils over. Why? Because I’m human and the players are humans and emotions are part of the human condition.

I want to be able to relate to the guys on the ice because I’m not a little kid anymore. I don’t look up to them as superheroes or gods who are infallible like I did when I was in my youth. All the spreadsheets and advanced stats in the world can’t quantify or explain why a game takes a sudden turn like the one Tuesday night did. What can is that we are all human and we all err as Zac Rinaldo did. Watching the game can explain what happened and why it happened, and sometimes that’s enough. It’s good to analyze games, to track data and get a better understanding of how a team is achieving success. Sometimes though, sometimes it’s not good to dissect and analyze every little piece of every single game because these men are not robots. They are human beings. They get frustrated. They do wrong. They make mistakes and they get frustrated about it. Sometimes you don’t need a justification or to be right or to be moral. Sometimes it’s enough to just sit back and watch this amazing and beautiful and disgusting and ugly sport that we all love so much. I’m all for tracking data and I’m all for a good clean skill game, but I’m also all for a game that is a caricature of the sport or a circus like the one that was played Tuesday night. I think you’d be lying to yourself, whether you’re a a Flyers fan or a Penguins fan, a Kings fan or a Sharks, a Bruins fan or a Canadiens fan, a Blackhawks or a Blues fan, or just a hockey fan if you said that you didn’t enjoy it, even just a little bit, too.

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