By Adam Hoge-
It’s a bad TV show on ABC and a word that is often comes up in hockey conversations.
When the Blackhawks face the Coyotes in Phoenix Thursday night, they’ll once again be facing the man that has become public enemy No. 1 in Chicago: Raffi Torres.
Two years ago, Torres — then a member of the Vancouver Canucks — nailed Brent Seabrook with an illegal hit in the playoffs. Then, last year, he nearly ended Marian Hossa’s career with a shoulder to the head that put the Blackhawks’ winger on a stretcher.
In a rare case of justice by the NHL’s chief thug, Brendan Shanahan, Torres was handed a 25-game suspension. And, in what was probably the only positive result of the NHL lockout, Hossa actually returned to ice before Torres did.
But the longtime cheapshot artist will be back on the ice tonight in Phoenix and, naturally, hockey fans everywhere are wondering if the Blackhawks will seek revenge.
They should, but they shouldn’t stoop to Torres’ level.
How the Blackhawks deal with Torres tonight is directly linked to the exhaustive argument about whether or not fighting is necessary in hockey.
What is necessary in hockey is accountability. What’s not necessary is Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out on ice.
Sometimes retaliation is needed — it’s part of the strategy in hockey. (And please stop with the tired football comparisons — you know, the: “So should there be a fight in football every time there is a big hit?” Hitting is optional in hockey, it’s not in football. It’s not like some NFL teams are playing touch football while others are playing tackle.)
One of the greatest criticisms of the Blackhawks in recent years is that they don’t hold their opponents accountable. They’re a skillful hockey team that isn’t very physical. They’re routinely out-hit. They’re the team the playing touch football.
But that’s the not the problem. That’s the Blackhawks’ identity and it’s an identity that has won them many hockey games the last three seasons.
The problem occurs when more physical hockey teams feel like they can take advantage of the Blackhawks by pushing them around and intimidating them by walking on the fine line of what’s legal and what’s dirty.
And that’s where the Hawks need to hold their opponents accountable.
It’s something they failed to do when Torres nailed Seabrook two years ago in the playoffs. Torres had just recently returned from a four-game suspension and was skating around like a mad-man, eventually nailing Seabrook directly in the head behind the net. Chris Campoli sort of retaliated, giving Torres a light jab against the boards. Torres hardly noticed, focusing more on complaining to the referee about the penalty that was called.
Thus, it was no surprise that Torres didn’t think twice about laying out Hossa in the playoffs last year. It was also no surprise that after the game he described his hit as “a hockey play.”
Now, the NHL certainly deserves some blame too. Torres wasn’t suspended for his hit on Seabrook the year before and the league has long failed to communicate a clear message to its players about what’s legal and what’s not.
For example: Torres didn’t even receive a penalty for hit on Hossa. In fact, the Coyotes got a power play out of the whole ordeal because Brandon Bollig went after Torres.
And that shouldn’t be ignored tonight. It may have taken a near career-ending hit, but Bollig did indeed go after Torres last year and so did the NHL. And maybe — just maybe — Torres has learned his lesson.
“We have to protect the top players in our league,” Torres said Wednesday. “If it’s going to take me thinking a little and not just running around with my head cut off, then that’s what it’s going to take … I learned a lot about myself over the last eight, nine months.”
So do the Blackhawks really need to take a cheap run at Torres tonight? No, but they still need to hold him accountable. Hold it over his head, don’t let him hide and look for the opportunity to lay down a hard, legal hit.
Just please, please, don’t engage him in a stupid, pointless fight that stops play. I’m talking to you, Bollig.
What would that really accomplish? So you get even and let him go? No, it would be much better to make Torres think twice about it not only tonight, but every other time he plays the Blackhawks the rest of his career.
Fair or not, the Hawks have gained a reputation for being soft. But there are indications that that is changing. Take Tuesday night’s game against the Sharks for instance. San Jose pushed the Blackhawks around the entire first period. So when Andrew Desjardins nailed Jamal Mayers in open ice in the second period, Duncan Keith — one of the smallest players on the ice — immediately went after him. Replays showed the hit was actually clean and the Blackhawks lost their top defenseman for 19 minutes, but it sent a message that the Hawks weren’t going to be pushed around. And it was important for the rest of the team to see that their undersized assistant captain was going to hold the opponent accountable. The Sharks noticed too and that helped the Blackhawks control the rest of the game and win 4-3.
Keith’s action was a far departure from the year before when the Sharks’ Joe Thornton popped Jonathan Toews in the back of the head and no one came to his defense. It’s believed that is when Toews suffered the concussion that severely hurt the Blackhawks the rest of the season.
Thornton needs to know he can’t get away with that. Torres needs to know it too.
So tonight in Phoenix, the Blackhawks need to let Torres know that his days of thuggery against them are over. They just shouldn’t stoop to his level.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.