Monday, January 19, 2015

What's the threshold for hits to the head?

I guess I'm partly tongue in cheek on this, because there were a ton of awful calls and non-calls on both sides of the puck in the series on Jan 10-11 between the Minnesota and Wisconsin women's hockey teams.

But today we were informed that Wisconsin men's hockey player Eddie Wittchow will receive a two game suspension for his hit to the head in Saturday's game.

The quality of this video isn't great since, you know, women's hockey is never televised, but here you'll see Minnesota's Dani Cameranesi and Wisconsin's Mellissa Channell get tangled up and hit the ice. Then you'll see Cameraniesi deliver a cross-check to Channell's head. No penalty is called.

The sequence that follows this is that Channell is unable to get off the ice. She kind of stumbles around the ice and falls down two more times before actually tripping a Gopher and receiving a penalty of her own. That penalty needed to be served by a different Badger as Channell left the ice. She didn't return. She also didn't play in Wisconsin's two games this past weekend because she had a "head injury" (Read: concussion).

Now here's Wittchow (and the ensuing brawl)

The thing is, are they very different? Clearly both were intentional. The two biggest differences are that Cameranesi received no punishment of any kind and that Channell was injured on the play. The Minnesota player in Wittchow's exchange is not.

Look, there will always be inconsistencies in refereeing and I try my best not to use them as an excuse to complain too much. But this is a glaring gulf and it led to a player having brain issues, so it feels like it should be addressed.

There's a ref just feet from Cameranesi and Channell. What was he watching? What purpose does he serve if not to make sure that players aren't receiving checks to the back of their heads?

(To be clear, I'm not picking on Cameranesi here - there were plenty of other plays on both sides of this game that weren't clean and should have been called. I don't think she's dirty and I don't want this to be about her specifically.)

The only reason this at all becomes any sort of men's versus women's issue is that the lack of experienced refs in women's college hockey is a long, exhausted argument. They aren't trained, developed and honed in the way that they are on the men's side. Is that why this play was missed? I don't know. But I know that Wittchow's hit was reviewed and he was charged appropriately.

No one can go back and call a penalty in Channell's case, but I find it disappointing that the WCHA didn't review anything after a player was too injured to serve her own penalty. Why wasn't that a red flag?

I was told WCHA officials were in the house for that series. I hope they were as appalled by the refs as we all were and then highly embarrassed.

Was Sochi seminal for women's hockey like 1999 was for women's soccer?

I have this not-fully-fleshed-out theory that in a few years we'll look back at 2014 as a seminal year in women's hockey.

Had Team USA won the gold medal, I think we'd talk about 2014 like we do the 1999 World Cup. Even though that didn't happen, I think that when you're talking to high school and college aged hockey players in 10-15 years, they'll tell you they remember watching Sochi the way that the current crop of players talk about watching the 1998 Olympics (the first time women's hockey competed).

In 2014, Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan and Julie Chu became household names. Collegiate hockey games were televised. We had the first NCAA winner from outside the WCHA. Shannon Szabados and Noora Raty continued to forge the way for women to play at the highest levels as they played in men's leagues in the US and Finland. Knight practiced with the Anaheim Ducks and it was a media sensation. The CWHL was formed, had the All-Star game and became a part of the sports landscape.

The online stream of the Olympic gold medal game was NBC Sports second most-watched stream, behind the 2012 Super Bowl. They say 1.2 million unique users watched the game. A Google search will bring you YouTube reactions from across the globe. A friend who was playing professional soccer in the Netherlands tells me she watched it with her teammates. That game crossed all sports, fan and country boundaries.

And social media made accounts from national team players from all countries gave us unprecedented acccess. From pre-Olympic silliness with the Lamoureux Twins to Swiss goalie Florence Schelling getting wheeled between venues. From Raty's post-Olympic blast of the lack of opportunities to Hilary Knight's Instagram, we've been allowed into the players' lives and been able to connect with them in a way that makes being a fan even more personal.

If there's a single moment, it's Kelli Stack's empty net shot that hit the post late in the game. It's no Miracle on Ice or Brandi Chastain on her knees, but that single image of the puck glancing off is one that will remain.

But instead of one seminal moment, I think instead we'll look back at a combination of all these things and see that this influx of women's hockey in the general consciousness brought more little girls to the ice, made it easier for little girls to play, helped form more teams of girls and generally brought an influx of players in a way that nothing else has done before it.

And maybe that's not anything ground-breaking. And maybe it was inevitable. But it doesn't happen without the correct collection of people/personalities. And it doesn't happen without the spectacular product that was put on the ice.

That gold medal game was heart-breaking, but I'm pretty sure I'll still be talking about Sochi in 20 years. The collection of pure talent that was on the ice in these games will be difficult to match and the way that I was invested in every shift, every face-off and every goal was personal.

Maybe that's the new normal. Maybe we'll always have that, but it's too soon to tell, so instead I'm going to cherish it and anoint 2014 as special.

And know that when I talk to college girls in 2025, they'll be telling me how it changed their lives to meet Meghan Duggan and watch her on screen. There isn't a doubt in my mind that more little girls had the confidence to pursue women's hockey because of Duggan, Poulin, Knight and Szabados et, al.