UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Here’s hoping Avs-Lightning play clean hockey

Now that the Stanley Cup Playoffs have reached their climactic series, I’m wondering if the Avalanche are in for more of the kind of punishment inflicted on them by Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton.

The best-of-seven with two-time Cup champ Tampa Bay will be bruising, for sure. That’s hockey, especially championship hockey.

But Samuel Girard is done, out with a broken sternum, and Nazem Kadri is questionable, at best, after surgery on a thumb—both caused by vicious checks into the boards, one arguably clean, the other dirty.

Also, Goalie Darcy Kuemper, No. 1 all season, missed several games, first because of a stick that—seemingly unintentionally—found its way inside his face mask during the Nashville series, then, in typical hockey fashion, an unspecified injury. And Andrew Cogliano is doubtful following surgery that was necessary after he blocked a shot with a hand against the Oilers.

Will Tampa Bay decide, too, that the best hope of beating the Avs is by reducing their ranks?

In that regard, hockey is a mystery to me. 

With players moving at often breakneck speed across the ice before crashing into one another, and pucks flying through the air faster than the fastest pitch in baseball, it is easily, in my opinion, the most dangerous of the four major sports (five, if you count soccer).

And while the players willingly participate in, and often initiate, the mayhem, they’re surprising gentlemen off the ice.

An experience I had several years ago illustrates my point.

I was writing a magazine piece about Jarome Iginla, who was in his second season with the Avs after a Hall of Fame-worthy career in Calgary. I attended a preseason practice and had to wait until he was off the ice to interview him.

Standing in a hallway part of the time, I encountered numerous clean-cut young men, all players, arriving for that practice. To amazement bordering on confusion, I was offered some kind of polite, respectful, cordial greeting by nearly every one of them. Unsolicited. 

I’ve mentioned this many times since then, often to those who know hockey players much better than I. Without exception, the reaction was some form of “What else would you expect?” or “I’m not surprised.” 

Seeking to reconcile my experience with the rough-and-tumble play on the ice, I asked Iginla about it during our time together in the dressing room.

“It’s just part of the game,” he said. “Nothing personal.”

Remember that, as you watch the Avs and Lightning knock each other silly at high speed. 

All of that said, I do feel it would be a better game without the fighting.

I realize that, just as many NASCAR fanatics attend the races hoping to see a spectacular crash, many hockey fans show up for the fisticuffs. And, like auto racing’s rabid followers, hockey faithful hope no one is seriously hurt.

But really. Shouldn’t all of the clean, hard contact—emphasis on clean—be enough?

I marvel at the ability of these guys to skate better than I can walk, much less dance, and their skill at handling a sliding puck with a curved stick while darting and racing around the rink. Their split-second decision-making in the face of such helter-skelter movement is unlike anything I’ve observed in any other sport.

The way to stop fighting in hockey seems pretty simple to me: Throw a punch and you’re out of the game.

And while they’re at it, eliminate the intentional assaults in the course of play, such as the one that has sidelined Nazem Kadri.  Any player who initiates that kind of hit should be suspended for as long as the player he injured is unable to play.

Will that ruin hockey? Diminish the intensity of games, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

I don’t think so. To the contrary, I think it would make the game better because it would allow these incredibly gifted individuals to fully display their talents. And it would enable fans to focus on the wonder of everything the players do with skates on their feet and long sticks in their hands.

Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game Seven of the 2011 finals against Vancouver, put it this way:

“The intensity increases right away, from the first game of Round One all the way through . . . Every puck matters, and every battle matters. You can feel it, you can sense it, from the drop of the puck on . . . . It’s always a battle of will . . .”

As for Colorado versus Tampa Bay, I, of course, hope the Avs prevail. And I think they will. I’m not a hockey savant, but they look faster and deeper, though TB’s goalie is nearly impregnable, and the defending champs have that experience.

But more than a favorable outcome, I’m hoping for games devoid of fights and cheap shots.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.