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Mixed messages in wake of Downie hit

From Friday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — For Dean McAmmond, a part of Tuesday night is forever lost.

He has seen the replays by now, seen the hit, seen himself lying on the ice — "I was lifeless there" is how he describes it.

The Ottawa Senators forward is relieved that a skate didn't slit his throat during the melee that followed. He has even read some of the blog entries that suggest it was his own fault for not seeing Philadelphia Flyers winger Steve Downie coming.

But those minutes from the night itself were erased when McAmmond's brain short-circuited.

"I only remember sitting down to start the second period," he said yesterday, meeting reporters at Scotiabank Place for the first time since the hit. "And then I remember being flat on my back in the medical room with guys talking to me."

That's the way it is when you skate behind the net with the puck, flip it toward a teammate and keep your eyes on the play rather than worrying about whether an enraged member of the opposition is skating all the way across the rink and lining you up for a flying elbow that will knock you unconscious.

Just finishing the check. That's what Downie said he was doing that night, and what he told McAmmond when he phoned him a day later.

"He just apologized for the hit and said he was sorry that I got hurt," McAmmond said. "He kind of reiterated what I saw him say on TV, that he was trying to finish his check and play his game."

A whole lot of hockey players think the same thing when they hit an opponent who no longer has the puck, who isn't braced for contact, who is a sitting duck.

It's a tricky issue for the NHL, since it is so entwined with entrenched beliefs about how the game ought to be played, and it's probably going to get lost here in all of the talk about an obviously troubled young man and the dangers of head shots in general.

That combination, at a time when commissioners in all sports seem emboldened about laying down the law, eases the way for the NHL to make a statement by lowering the boom on Downie.

"The timing of this couldn't be better," McAmmond said, which sounds funny coming from a guy who has suffered his third concussion — the previous one courtesy of Anaheim's Chris Pronger during last spring's Stanley Cup final — and who will have to answer the familiar questions about whether he is comfortable assuming the risks involved in continuing his career.

("Everybody has been saying I've got concussion problems," McAmmond said. "I don't believe I've got concussion problems at all, I've got problems with people giving me traumatic blows to the head. That's what I've got a problem with.")

During training camp this fall, NHL players have been shown a video compiled by league disciplinarian Colin Campbell and company, detailing the kind of head shots the league wants to eliminate. Downie's hit met all of the criteria.

And because of his checkered history as a junior player, because there are a whole lot of people in hockey who considered him an emotional time bomb, because he went after McAmmond immediately after absorbing a legal check from Christoph Schubert that apparently set him off, there will be widespread sentiment that this is the perfect guy of whom the league ought to make an example.

"I think that for the good of Steve Downie, he needs to be suspended for a long time," Ottawa head coach John Paddock said yesterday. "We all know his history in the OHL. Hockey is the most important thing to him. Take it away from him."

Outside of Philadelphia, you won't get much argument on that. (A cynic would also note that for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman et al, this is an easy one, because Downie is eminently disposable — he's not a star, it wasn't a playoff game, he probably wasn't even going to make the Flyers' roster.)

But what about the point where the reckless intent-to-injure intersects with the accepted wisdom that following through on the play, putting a body on a guy a second, or two, or three or more after he releases the puck, is simply part of the game?

"You're taught to watch the puck and watch the play," McAmmond said. "If somebody was to run out of position they could level any of those players that were watching the puck.

"I think there is a time frame when as a player you have to be able to recognize when that person has the puck and when he doesn't have the puck. I don't see the point of it after that. I don't think it's part of the game to hit a guy late. I don't see how it would [make sense] — other than to send a message or to punish a player."

Both message sending and punishment are time-honoured traditions in the NHL. Many a player has been lauded — and not just from the Saturday night pulpit — for taking those few extra steps.

Addressing that is a whole lot tougher than throwing the book at Steve Downie. But look back at all of those concussions; look back at how most of them occurred. It's no coincidence.

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