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The Globe and Mail

Asham decision a chance to send message about clean checks

Pittsburgh Penguins' Arron Asham (45) sits on the bench during the final minute of an 8-5 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers during Game 2 of an opening-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series in Pittsburgh Friday, April 13, 2012.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

From the standpoint of a change in culture, Brendan Shanahan's decision on Arron Asham will be just as important as all of the other ones the league's disciplinarian has to make.

In the last 20 years or so, there's been a trend in hockey, which started in the NHL as these things usually do and drifted down, for those who throw a hard but clean body check to be challenged to a fight by one of the fallen player's teammates. Or he is immediately decked, which is what happened to Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers shortly after he flattened Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Paul Martin on Sunday.

No sooner had Schenn downed Martin than his teammate Asham cross-checked the Flyers forward to the throat. Schenn went down hard and Asham immediately jumped on him and starting throwing punches to his head.

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Now, it's been pointed out Schenn received a minor penalty for charging so his hit on Martin cannot be called squeaky clean. True but it's close enough to being clean to be used to illustrate the point.

This hit was related to the one Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom made on Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverley on Monday. Peverley did not throw a clean body check (he tripped Caps star Alexander Ovechkin) but he did suffer an immediate consequence when Backstrom, who himself missed a good chunk of the season with a concussion, cross-checked him on the head.

It is expected Shanahan will issue a decision on Asham, Backstrom and Penguins winger James Neal, who made hits on Flyer forwards Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier in Sunday's slugfest, either late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

If Shanahan, and the NHL for that matter, would like to reverse the scorn and ridicule heaped on them for the wonky decisions on the long list of offenders in this year's playoffs, then Asham, who is no stranger to Judge Shanahan's docket, needs to be suspended for at least three games.

Shanahan needs to explain in the usual video accompanying his decisions that if hockey is to remain a hard-hitting sport then the players need to know a hit within the rules is not going to result in a challenge to fight or a mouthful of lumber. Somewhere in the last 20 years the notion of frontier justice for hits or attacks outside the rules was extended to those who throw hard but clean body checks.

What ever happened to the old coach's line to a player staggering back to the bench, "Did you get the number of the truck that hit you?" Or, "Hey, kid, keep your head up." Teammates usually offered the same sort of advice. Now, it's "Let me mug the guy who knocked you on your can."

In the case of a player who has his face driven into the glass without sanction from Shanahan, the notion of frontier justice can be understood. But the advocates of "old-time hockey" lose me when someone has to defend himself for doing what is supposed to be part of the game.

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All of the shouting about the anti-headshot crowd wanting to take the physical aspect of hockey away doesn't account for the fact unchecked frontier justice could do the same.

This is yet another line Shanahan needs to draw in the sand, although given his rather shaky grasp of a straight line of justice so far I'm not counting on anything.

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