Watching and listening to Predators games this season I've noticed a common topic that frequently crops up between play-by-play man Pete Weber and color commentator Terry Crisp. Crispy was consistently noted the strong fan reaction when the home town crowd sees one of their boys leveled with a hit. The gist of Crispy's comments are along the lines of current NHL fans believing that any body contact between two players should result in penalties or retaliation. Further, he believes that the NHL hockey culture as cultivated by the central NHL officers are, at least in part, to blame for current fan-reactions to body contact. As with most things there is a grain of truth in what Terry Crisp has been saying recently, but as always I'd like to spend some time thinking about what may actually be gone on in the minds of fans.
Whether for better or worse every hockey fan can agree that the game has changed since the league entered the post-lockout world. Grappling and constant body crippling hits have either decreased or been totally eliminated from the game and as fans we're now experiencing traditional North American hockey with some added European style flavors. The NHL have also placed a greater emphasis on player safety with rules that try and protect players from head shots and other plays that result in high probability of injury. The easiest thing to say about the fans is that when you and your friends or family are sitting in the stands all you can see is the hit. Like with many potential penalties, the fans can't see every detail. Sometimes the fans see a trip, but the hometown guy just stepped on a stick. The same thing happens to referees. Predators fans may recall a penalty last year called against (I think) Kevin Klein. He was called for a slash after Klein's opponent broke his stick by clashing Klein's. The same thing can happen with hits of all types, but I don't think that is the essence of the issue nor what Crispy has noted in his commentary.
I think the fan unrest that we're see when it comes from hits stems from two things: perceived inconsistency of rule enforcement and sensitization. As always this isn't a commentary on how people are doing their jobs, but rather a hopefully objective exploration of a hypothesis. With the NHL's closed door, window, and vent policy fans know little to nothing about injuries, rule making, and rule enforcement outside of what is directly observable in public settings. It is therefore difficult to neigh impossible to comprehend how the NHL deals with supplemental punishment. After several seasons of confusion on the parts of fans as to why and how certain suspensions and fines are doled out we're becoming acutely aware inconsistencies. Its tough when you see a fan favorite penalty killer and fourth line grinder go into the boards face first and watch the guilty party skate away and face no consequences, then days later see a player get suspended for two games after trying to squeeze an opposition player through the cracks in the glass. I could illustrate more instances, but if you're a hockey fan I'm sure you're aware of a dozen examples on your own.
What you're see is the perceived inconsistencies in enforced discipline is causing fans to become hyper-sensitive to hits and any other type of body contact. Fans have started to look at and mentally break down each and every hit trying to determine not if its clean or dirty, but rather to what degree of dirty was that hit. The problem is then only compounded as similar hits are treated differently and further complicated by fans trying to figure out what the equation that is used to determine how justice is doled out, or not doled out as the case may be, based off an equation whose variables are the very players involved. At some point fans might as well boo any hit because no one really knows when or if a hit will be considered dirty by the NHL.
As a final note, the whole Crosby/slew-foot topic could also be included in the above blog, but I won't be addressing that topic.