[Editor's Note: There are profanities and VERY strong language quoted in this article. Please take note and do not read if offended.]
On Wednesday night the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins played in one of the most enjoyable and entertaining games in the NHL this season. Unfortunately much of the discourse following the game had nothing to do with the thrilling 4-3 shootout victory of the Penguins or how the Stars are suddenly surging in time for the postseason. Instead, debate is raging across the hockey world about another unfortunate injury to a star player -- this time Kris Letang of the Penguins.
The point of contention centers around the hit by Eric Nystrom that sent Letang out of the game, who will now miss at least Saturday's game with a concussion [see video of the hit here]. It's the second concussion for Letang this season and with Sidney Crosby's injury on the minds of everyone in the NHL, it's understandable that Penguins fans would be upset about the loss of such a player to a similar injury.
What has happened in the two days since the game has been incredibly disturbing in some ways and incredibly uplifting in others. There was the infamous on-air debate between Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick, followed by further debate by pundits on NHL Network and NHL Home Ice on SiriusXM. What has become clear when listening to most national writers or commentators about this particular event is that the major issue with this particular hit is that another Penguins star player was hurt, and therein lies the problem with the NHL.
What has been truly disturbing is the response that we've seen online from Penguins fans directed at Nystrom, who has a very public Twitter profile. Starting nearly immediately after the game it became clear that Nystrom was the target of extremely hateful attacks, unfortunately not the first time this has happened this season.
What has been encouraging was the online response from Penguins fans, Stars fans and hockey fans to these attacks -- as well as the classy response from Nystrom himself.
Before we get to the underlying issues surrounding the hit itself, I wanted to present a mere taste of what Nystrom was faced with on Twitter in the hours following the game against the Penguins. I must warn you that the language here is very strong and very hateful.
This is also a small sample of what I was able to find, going through hundreds and hundreds of responses to Nystrom over the past two days.
@enystrom23 should be suspended... Its cool though last guy who hurt Letang couldn't avoid fists to the face when Kris returned.— Michael James III (@shootmj3) March 2, 2012
@enystrom23 You showed a complete lack of respect for the game, fellow players and your team last night, with you playing.— Nick (@OstrichBandit69) March 1, 2012
@enystrom23 Im going to execute you [redacted]! You're a dead man!— Thomas Moore (@Moorethomasj) March 1, 2012
@enystrom23 at least apologize for being a cheap player, you could have played the puck you [redacted]. Hope a car hits you [redacted].— Brandon Doppelheuer (@BrandonDopp) March 1, 2012
just cause tanger is better than you in every way and he's what you wanna be doesn't mean you go for the head you [redacted] @enystrom23— Devin Calmbacher (@devinC25) March 1, 2012
@enystrom23 [redacted] Letang will eat your face you cheap [redacted] you're pathetic and I hope Shanahan sits you for weeks. [redacted].— Josh (@mrrightfernow) March 1, 2012
What's really amazing about this is that the anger isn't over a blatant flying elbow to the end or a forearm shiver to the jaw. Instead, this is about a glancing blow of a hit that was about 90% shoulder to shoulder on a clean play. It certainly wasn't anything like this hit.
Or this hit.
Or this hit.
Or heck, even this hit.
Like I said, this is a mere small sample of the incredible amounts of hateful responses directed at Nystrom from Penguins fans on Twitter. It's important to remember that these fans do not represent Penguins fans as a whole who, while they might have been upset with Nystrom or the injury to Letang in general, did not resort to such hateful tactics. After hateful tweets like these began to be seen, most Penguins fans jumped to the support of Nystrom -- even if they were unhappy with the actual hit.
While Twitter is merely an impersonal medium for people to interact, it also represents a new dimension in how fans interact with sports figures and celebrities. Unlike ever before, fans can directly contact their favorite players and have online conversations whereas before Twitter or Facebook no such option existed. It's been an incredible way for players to take on a more public persona and while some aren't as adept at engaging their fans as others, Eric Nystrom is one of the best in the NHL.
What Twitter also represents is a protected way for people to flat out attack others with no fear of repercussion. There's no chance in the world any of the cowards above would say this to Nystrom's face, but this is the world we live in now. People, for whatever reason, think their words have no impact on the people they're attacking because -- after all -- it's just the internet and it's only online.
What we're starting to see in our society is that online bullying is a very real thing and while Nystrom is a successful hockey player, what the people above are resorting to is no different than what has led many others to self-destructive measures because of online attacks.
When things like this occur, especially with celebrities and sports figures, the response from the celebrity is sometimes just as hateful. With Nystrom, as always, he responds in as classy a way as you could expect.
@Djkush11 im sorry kris got hurt and i respect ur allegiance to ur team.— Eric Nystrom (@enystrom23) March 1, 2012
@dalstarsfan1073 let the haters hate. Those who try to bring u down are already below u!!!!— Eric Nystrom (@enystrom23) March 2, 2012
@PolarPenguin1 Reached down at last second. I was committed to the hitNothin I could do. Trust me, i hated seein him hurt as much as u!!— Eric Nystrom (@enystrom23) March 2, 2012
This is but a small sampling of the trouble Nystrom went to yesterday afternoon to respond to nearly everyone that contacted him via Twitter since the game. If one thing has become increasingly clear since Dallas traded for Nystrom at the start of this season is that he is incredibly grateful to the support he receives from fans. He takes the time to respond to most everyone throughout the week and yesterday made sure he thanked each person individually who showed him support after the hit.
What's even more incredible is he took the time to respond these hateful comments and calmly explain the situation, all the while expressing remorse for the unfortunate injury to Letang. This is very similar to what happened during preseason when Nystrom was involved in a collision with Taylor Fedun, who broke his femur when he hit the boards. Just like now, Nystrom calmly responded to the incredible amount of hateful comments spewed forth from those who choose to anonymously attack him.
What has been more frustrating, even more so than the response from fans, is the national response after Letang was injured.
The NHL is attempting to cut down on head shots, as they should, and passed an amended rule in the offseason to aid in that effort. Rule 48 is intended to penalize players for hits where the head is targeted or the principle point of contact and we've seen the NHL crack down on these hits this season, although there have certainly been some inconsistencies in how this has been enforced. The Stars have been the recipient of the good and bad of that inconsistency, with Marc Fistric being suspended for a borderline hit to Nino Niederreiter earlier this season and Tomas Vincour and Philip Larsen both going down after questionable hits with almost no discussion outside of Dallas.
What has become abundantly clear in this situation is not the fact that another player was lost to a concussion, but that another star player was lost to a concussion. On NHL Home Ice yesterday, Jamie Shalley made it a point to say that the NHL needs to protect it's star players and that they should perhaps receive preferential treatment from the league in situations such as this. The outrage from the east coast and Pittsburgh echoes this sentiment, that a player like Letang being lost is a travesty and the fact that Nystrom went unpunished is a crime in and of itself.
What's even more amazing is that the debate isn't centered around whether it was a "headshot" or not, but whether Nystrom was wrong for putting the hit on Letang in the first place. Heading into the offensive zone on the forecheck, Nystrom's job is to separate the defenseman from the puck and that is exactly what he did on the hit. That Letang was attempting to lunge at the puck and away from the hit is unfortunate, but nothing about the hit shows that Nystrom was deliberately trying to hit Letang's head.
If the issue with this hit is the fact that Nystrom didn't play the puck, then why aren't more open ice hits attacked? Why wasn't the hit by Derek Engelland on Nystrom a few minutes later attacked in this same manner? The reason, of course, is that because of this one singular hit we're trying to redefine what hitting actually is in hockey and how checks should be made.
If Letang is standing up or follows through with his movement on playing the puck, then it's a completely clean shoulder to shoulder hit and it's played on highlight reels across the NHL. We see this time and time again, how hypocritical the NHL is when it comes to devastating hits -- there's a fine line between what is to be celebrated and what turns a player into a "dirty" menace to the game.
If one thing has been made clear by this entire situation is that the heart of the matter lies at the star power of the players involved. If the roles were reversed, if this was Evgeni Malkin taking out Philip Larsen, I can guarantee you the national outcry would never exist. Instead, the debate is centered around how unfortunate it is that another star player is injured, who should be treated differently than players like Nystrom because "Letang helps sell the game."
For Dallas Stars fans, Eric Nystrom sells the game. He's a big reason why fans love this team this year, why the Stars popularity is rising with each passing week. In just a few short months he's quickly become one of the most popular players on the team, not just because of how he plays on the ice but because of his incredible generosity off the ice and his willingness to interact with the fans that love him. Nystrom is even willing to answer those that shamelessly call him out with names and attacks, who have nothing more than a keyboard at their disposal.
This is hockey. Not every hit that results in an injury is an illegal or dirty hit. While the NHL can certainly do more to protect the players, there's no reason that every hit that results in a concussion should become such a point of contention. There is such a fine line in hits such as this one between highlight-reel and injury and unfortunately, Kris Letang ended up on the wrong side. It happens across the league, all the time, with players like Larsen and Vincour being taken out with no protest or debate about the validity of the hit when the outcome was just the same as Letang's.
Here's to a speedy recovery for a great player in Kris Letang and let's hope that, in the future, discussion is centered around the safety of all players in the NHL -- not just those we determine to be worth more than others.