Friday night’s Wisconsin men’s hockey game was a prime example of players having to walk, or in this case skate, a fine line when it comes to rules that protect their own safety.
And in a sport that features as much constant contact as football and at times embraces fighting as much as boxing, calls can be controversial depending on whom the referee decides is responsible.
Hosting St. Cloud State at the Kohl Center, just over 15 minutes into the first period, UW junior defenseman John Ramage put what appeared to be a shoulder-to-shoulder (legal) but devastating hit on SCSU freshman forward Nick Oliver, who had intercepted the puck a fraction of a second before the collision. Ramage’s explosive strike left Oliver, teammate Jefferson Dahl and himself spinning to the ice, Oliver unable to get to his feet.
Pandemonium erupted throughout the Kohl Center as fans came to their feet and all the players to the ice. Save Oliver and the goalies, the teams erupted in a brawl. Multiple SCSU skaters were making their way toward Ramage in an attempt to defend their own, but one skater in particular was impeded by junior forward Ryan Little.
“I was just looking for somebody to grab onto so they wouldn’t go after Rammer [Ramage],” Little said. The SCSU player that Little happened to grab a hold of was 6-foot-4 defenseman Kevin Gravel. Little is 5-foot-9.
“I lucked out and happened to find somebody that didn’t have a lot of fight in him, so he went down pretty easy. You’re just basically trying not to look like an idiot out there,” Little said.
It seemed players would just go to the penalty box for the fight, but the referee’s hand extended and Ramage was charged with a five minute major penalty for a hit to the head and was ejected from the contest for game misconduct.
“I want to say it was a clean hit and a good hit, but with the rule changes now, it was kind of borderline,” Little said. “A year or two ago, that would have been completely clean. I think just the fact that he came east to west on the guy; [Oliver] was kind of unsuspecting. That is the only thing that is really wrong with it. Given the same situation I’d do the same thing.”
That may be the most difficult thing surrounding the ejection of Ramage. He missed more than 45 minutes of the game for a hit deemed illegal.
“In the new day and age of hockey, they are trying to protect the hockey player more and prevent head injuries,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “I think with John, it was a shoulder-to-shoulder check. … I understand the [WCHA] looked at [the hit] and thought about giving John an additional game, but the fact is he got DQ’d from that game, so they just left it alone. In today’s age, when it’s an east and west hit, coming from the side, when the player is in a vulnerable position, they don’t want those type of hits.”
Hits that lead to fights on the ice can be one of the most exciting parts of a hockey game from the crowd’s perspective, and some players relish the opportunity to be physical, but as evidenced by the referee’s call, collegiate hockey isn’t going to tolerate it.
“[Big hits and fights] are really starting to die out unfortunately, I love it,” Little said. “I am all for it as long as you’re not hitting a guy in the head or cheap-shotting someone, I think it’s great. But with the amount of concussions and the way the game is kind of evolving, you don’t see it as much anymore. It’s kind of unfortunate but at the same time, safety is a concern as well.”
Ramage understands how the referees could make that crucial of a call against him. But at the same time, the defenseman says he was just trying to make a clean play to give the rest of the team and fans at the Kohl Center something to cheer about. Instead, he got an early shower and a view of the game from the stands.
“I never intend to injure anyone, but if the time comes to step up and make a good hit then I am going to look for it,” Ramage said. “It’s a tough hit, I mean it could go both ways. For me I could see how it’s a clean hit, but also now with the new rules you just don’t know anymore. I think … maybe better educating the players would be a good idea.”
Eaves knows a thing or two about how rough a hockey game can be; he was forced to retire from the NHL after eight seasons due to concussions. Now he must help his players adjust to a new set of rules.
“There has been such an underlining of concussions, and we are trying to address those issues to protect players,” Eaves said. “I don’t want to see contact taken out of the game at all. In the college level, they have learned not to hit guys from behind [from prior rule changes]. We have to continue to educate our guys that these kind of east-west hits, blindside things … to learn that this is not going to be in the game right now.”