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Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is dumped by Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf during first period NHL hockey action Thursday, February 24, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson (Paul Chiasson)
Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is dumped by Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf during first period NHL hockey action Thursday, February 24, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson (Paul Chiasson)

NHL Weekend

Hockey players willing to turn their backs Add to ...

In the argot of the game, it would be described merely as "a hockey play," but sometimes broader truths are hidden in seemingly simple gestures.

With his team up 3-0 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a recent home game, the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty controlled the puck in the Toronto end at 11:31 of the third period with Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn bearing down on him.

Just as Schenn arrived, Pacioretty spun toward the boards, exposing his back, and was crunched into the glass for his trouble.

The 22-year-old left the ice favouring his left arm, and would play only one more shift (although he did return for the Habs' next game).

It's the sort of play that happens all the time, but it also illustrates just how tricky it can be to effect change in hockey through the rulebook.

There is an in-born belief on the part of many NHL players that penalizing all forms of head contact are neither practicable nor desirable, and while many experts disagree, the experience with hitting from behind may be instructive in terms of the unintended consequences of modifying a particular pattern of behaviour.

Pacioretty, you see, was acting with purpose and forethought.

"We're on the power-play and I know that if I turn my back he either has to slow up or take a penalty," he said in a recent interview. "I tend to play that way sometimes, maybe put my body out there and draw a penalty for the team, unfortunately that one worked against me."

No penalty was called.

Before the current focus on concussions, there were hits from behind, a scourge that had to be driven from the game at every level.

And in a lot of ways, tougher rules and awareness have ensured that they have - incidents where players suffer catastrophic spinal and neck injuries are sharply down since the mid-1990s.

Safety experts often cite the "STOP" patch on the back of minor-hockey jerseys as a simple, tremendously effective method for altering the game and protecting skaters.

Yet turning one's back is becoming an increasingly frequent practice, and is routinely being taught by coaches.

Former NHL enforcer Marty McSorley recently marvelled after watching several minor-hockey practices at how many kids he saw spinning to show their backs - and that their coaches instructed them to do it.

"It has to be addressed," he said.

Detroit Red Wings forward Mike Modano has been an especially strident critic of hits from behind, and his view is that post-lockout rule changes have led to more of them, especially on defencemen.

"Taking obstruction out of the game has allowed guys to go from zero to 100 without being contested - without any slowdown through the neutral zone, without holding on to help your defence get back and get the puck," Modano said this week. "Now, you've got to let 'em go, so [the defenceman]is getting hammered from behind. Plus, the cross-ice hits and the equipment - it's more like a weapon, like in football."

In 1999, the then-Dallas Stars centre was slammed into the end boards from behind by Anaheim's Ruslan Salei - who ironically is now his teammate with the Detroit Red Wings - and had to be stretchered off with a concussion and neck and facial injuries.

Three years later, he suffered another concussion after being cranked from behind by Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick.

After that hit, Modano lashed out at the seamless glass in place in most arenas - then as now, innovative new equipment designed to protect in some cases is creating unanticipated dangers.

"You're so protected now, you feel a little bit invincible, where you can give punishing hits and know you're not going to be receiving that. It used to be, when the equipment [was lighter] they used to get hurt just as badly as the guy getting hit," he said.

Players at any level or at any age could do a lot worse, Modano said, than to watch teammate Nick Lidstrom absorb contact by bracing his outside leg - "He's always skating forward, but protects himself this way [by leaning into contact] where he can't get pushed over. Otherwise, you're too light on your feet."

But for all the efforts to prevent players from being injured on hits from behind, Modano raises another truism of sports: enact a new rule, and athletes will find a way to stretch it or exploit it.

"Some guys use it to their advantage. They know if they turn a little bit and embellish a little, you might get a call," Modano said. "And that's not right."

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