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Hit

It's a sharp pop at first, and then it's a dull thud as it works its way through plastic and cushions and fabric. It's a muffled jolt that shakes the body's core and shoots out to all its extremities.

It's a transfer of energy, a meeting between two bodies in motion, a collision in an ongoing battle for space to win an ongoing war for dominance.

It's the body check.

Ask any hockey player, any age at any level, from the first game of the exhibition season through Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final. You'll hear it throughout the playoffs. Listen for it. A reporter will ask a player, How do you guys get in the game after so much time off? Or How will you guys get in the game after so little time off? How will you seize the momentum? Or keep it up? They'll ask questions -- multiple times -- about energy and passion and tempo and style, and the player will answer it the same way almost every time.

Hit, the player will say. Or take a hit.

It doesn't matter which. It makes no difference if a player is the aggressor or the target. There's a pop, a dull thud, a muffled jolt.

It's hockey at its most basic form.

Before Game Six of last year's Eastern Conference quarterfinal between the Flyers and Penguins, Claude Giroux went through the shooting line during warm-ups. He threw his body at every player on his own team.

When the puck dropped, he did this.



The Flyers won the game, and the franchise designated Giroux its captain that offseason.

In the moment a body check doesn't hurt. The protective equipment -- plastic shells and padded casings -- absorbs most of the impact. The adrenaline covers the rest.

It feels good to hit or get hit, actually. Few things in sports can put a player "in the moment" as much as a clean, hard body check. It clears everything else -- thoughts of home, of family, of anything else that absorbs into a player's body during hours spent outside of a rink -- out of a player's system. It brings the attention back to that struggle for space and the pursuit of a frozen slice of vulcanized rubber.

There's the downside to the body check, of course, and that is the increased attention toward injury, specifically the "c-word," the dreaded concussion.

Hockey's given the c-word plenty of euphemisms over the years. Players have had their bells rung and their clocks cleaned and their cobwebs shaken. They've seen stars and chirping cartoon birds dancing around their heads. But talk about player safety and the dangers of the body check have increased in gravity, clouding the distinction between a good, hard hockey play and a dangerous, threatening scenario.

Still, it's the clean, hard body blows -- the ones that don't invoke the dreaded c-word -- that give hockey its vitality as a sport. Nothing rattles an opponent better than a hard hit on open ice. Nothing inspires a team more than seeing one of its own batter the bad guys against the boards.

When I started playing ice hockey -- that is, when I finally could pay my way through a season -- my mother would cope with the idea of her son playing such a violent sport by telling herself and everyone else, "The first thing they do is teach the kids how to fall properly."

I never corrected her.

What they teach you, at first, is how to get back up. They blow the whistle, and you skate. They blow it again, and you slide. And then they'll blow it a third time. Prop yourself on your knees, they tell you, and then go up to one knee, lean the stick over it and pull yourself up. Over and over again.

They never teach you how to fall, or how to take a hit. But you learn.

You learn how to fall by doing it countless times during a game, sometimes by your own power and others via body check. Then it's knees, stick, go. Back on the ice and into play.

A friend of mine in college, after one of our games, noted how quickly hockey players got back to their feet. The next time you watch a game, pay attention to it. You'll be amazed.

As a player, I fell a lot. As a small player, I took my share of hits. And I loved it. I enjoyed throwing myself into corners on the forecheck. i loved lining up opponents coasting through the neutral zone and driving my shoulder into them. My height never gave me an advantage, but my build always did. I remember one time, a doctor was pressing on my abdomen, making sure my organs aligned correctly, or whatever doctors check when they press on your abdomen.

"Do you play any sports?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "Hockey."

"Well," he answered, pressing on my sides. "I certainly wouldn't want to run into you."

In street hockey, an 18-over league I joined at 16, I relished the role as a pest, trying my best to dig under the skin of guys twice as old and, sometimes, twice as heavy. Before one of our playoff games, our captain walked over to me, pointing out a bigger guy in orange warming up at the other end.

"See that guy?" he asked. "Annoy the shit out of him."

By the end of my first shift, the guy in orange had wrapped me up and thrown me to the ground. The referee sent him to the penalty box. We scored on that power play and won the game.

In college, my friends made fun of my lack of playing time and suggested that, if I ever played in a game, someone would knock me into the next week.

I finally made it on the ice for the last game before our winter break freshman year. I was killing a penalty and picked up a puck along the boards just outside our own zone. With plenty of ice between me and the opposing team -- in the middle of a line change -- I skated with the puck across the neutral zone.

I saw the defenseman skating, backwards, from his own bench on the far side of the rink. He was going to cut me off on my path to the net, but if I could dance around him, I'd have a breakaway. Waiting until he was about 10 feet away, I pulled the puck from my forehand to my backhand, shifted my weight ...

...and led myself right into his shoulder.

A teammate says I flipped, although I'm not sure if that was an exaggeration. I hit the ice and bounced back up in one motion. My stick went flying across the ice, but I pursued the defenseman with the puck, anyway. In that whole play, the only thing I regret is following him behind the net.

You never do that in the offensive zone.

That night was one of the few parties I attended in college. My head hurt the whole time. I'm pretty sure it was a concussion.

I haven't touched the ice in a couple years. My schedule prevents me from participating in any leagues with any consistency. I miss it. I miss scoring the goals, setting up the plays. I miss the camaraderie shared among teammates and the animosity with the other teams.

Perhaps most of all, though, I miss the pop and the thud and the jolt of delivering or receiving a body check. I miss the collision, the moment and the struggle. I miss getting knocked down and shooting right back up, knees, stick and all.

Because it's the things outside the rink that hurt. Everything else is just hockey, and hockey is a fun, beautiful game.

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
felixwas
May. 16th, 2013 03:10 am (UTC)
Were you hockey-conscious when Ken Linseman played for the Flyers? And surely, as a shift-disturber, you have to at least be a little bit of a fan of Brad Marchand.
theoldsport
May. 16th, 2013 05:40 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, I missed out on Linseman. I can't remember anything before the '94 lockout.

I can't call myself a Marchand fan, but I appreciate what he does, especially as a "little" guy. When he's on the ice, I'll catch myself following him more than I follow the puck.

I'm a big fan of agitators. Except for someone like Kaleta. That guy's a 100-percent goon who demonstrates little skill and no respect for the game (Opening bench doors to knock a guy off balance, headbutting, etc.)

By the way, I turned the Bruins game off when it was 4-2 to watch the other Game 7 Monday. By the time Twitter alerted me that it was worth switching back, the Bruins were at an intermission before the overtime (which, really, was just a formality, anyway).
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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