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Hickey on hockey: A heavy cross-check to bear for NHL officials

Ben Chiarot of the Montreal Canadiens drills Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the back at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Jan. 13, 2021.
Ben Chiarot of the Montreal Canadiens drills Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the back at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Jan. 13, 2021.

Hockey players often talk about paying the price, which is what a forward does when he decides to park himself in front of the opposition’s net.

When you put yourself in that position, you can expect that there will be a defenceman behind you and he will make you aware of his presence with a few cross-checks to the back.

That was the situation for Leafs star Auston Matthews in the final minute of the Montreal-Toronto game Wednesday. First, he absorbed what was little more than a love tap from Canadiens captain Shea Weber and then he took a more forceful hit from Ben Chiarot, which had him wincing all the way to the bench.

The hits touched off a debate that lost its focus when Jeff Jackson, a former player who serves as an agent in the Wasserman/Orr Group that represents Matthews, tweeted:

“Great to see NHL hockey back last night. Such amazing athletes & so much speed & skill in the game now. But watching the abuse that star players take is hard to watch. Felt like the 80’s with the cross checks in the back & the hacking & slashing. NFL protects QB’s? Why don’t we?”

The debate shouldn’t be about star players and how they are treated; it should be about the rules and how they are interpreted. The cross-check in front of the net has become part of the game and it’s up to the referees to decide when enough is enough.

Matthews seemed to understand this in comments he made after the game.

“You always want to protect the players,” said Matthews. “I mean, I guess the guys have a right to defend the net and obviously create that body position and stuff, but you’ve just got to find that happy medium. As far as the penalties and refereeing goes, it’s just got to stay consistent. It’s just a fine line.”

“There’s certainly got to be a line in the sand somewhere,” added Leafs teammate John Tavares. “It’s a highly contested area and the defending team has the right to defend it, but it certainly gets to a point where … it crosses the line and it should be called, and that line should be consistent on a nightly basis.”

Because Matthews plays in Toronto, and Hogtown-on-the Lake is the media capital of Canada, this story has a lot of legs. But what wasn’t mentioned is that Matthews and Chiarot battled throughout the game and Matthews gave as good as he got. At one point, Matthews broke his stick while taking a swipe at Chiarot. On another occasion, Matthews took exception to a hard but clean hit behind the net by cross-checking Chiarot twice in the chest.

And, outside of TSN’s Mike Johnson, I didn’t hear a lot of concern over the mugging of Brendan Gallagher at the other end of the ice.

At the risk of sounding like my friend Don Cherry, hockey is a physical sport and it should be left to the players and officials to decide what’s fair. It’s ridiculous to suggest that a marquee player be given the same hands-off approach accorded NFL quarterbacks.

Hitting below the belt: I thought the silliest sports story of the week was the rebranding of the Impact as the Club de Foot Montréal , which sounds like the moniker for a chain of discount podiatrists.

But it’s difficult to top the announcement that Manscaped , the self-described global leader in below-the-waist grooming and hygiene, has signed on as the designated official below-the-waist grooming partner of the Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators.

Manscaped previously announced deals as the official electrical trimmer of UFC, the official below-the-waist grooming partner of the San Francisco 49ers and the official grooming partner of the English Premier League’s Wolverhampton Wanderers.

According to the news release: “The Habs and Sens will be duelling 10 times and with these MAN-powered face-offs, only one thing is for certain: the players will be the most ballsy, and well-kept, in NHL history.”

Varsity update: Canadiens defence prospect Jayden Struble had a goal and an assist as Northeastern blanked New Hampshire this week. Head coach Jim Madigan, a Loyola High alumnus, missed the game after being exposed to COVID-19. Also absent was Canadian junior team goaltender Devon Levi of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. His NCAA debut is on hold because of an upper-body injury.

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