October 19, 2021

Playing the game “the right way” means standing up for your teammate

With about ten minutes left in Tuesday night’s game, with the Washington Capitals already holding a 3-1 lead, Calgary Flames’ winger Rene Bourque — fresh off a two-game suspension for an illegal hit on Chicago’s Brent Seabrook — did it again.  He intentionally, viciously targeted the head of his opponent, this time Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, and delivered his elbow squarely to the jaw of the unsuspecting Swede, who was headed to the bench on a line change.

You can see the video here to make up your own mind on the hit.

It’s a despicable act by a repeat offender who should have the book thrown at him in his hearing later Wednesday with NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.

But what happened in the game afterward was almost as troubling as the hit itself. 

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

There was no pushing and shoving.  No messages sent.  No standing up for a fallen teammate.  And it’s reached almost epidemic proportions on this team.

Let me be clear; I’m not advocating headhunting, stick-swinging, injury-provoking vigilantism.  I’m not talking about running a marquee player or the other team’s goalie.  I’m talking about standing up for a teammate, something this version of the Capitals doesn’t seem willing to do. 

So fine, the players on the ice at the time of the hit might not have seen what happened, I get it.  The hit was delivered during a line change and there was a lot going on at the time.  Backstrom was taken to the dressing room, so the players on the bench had to know what was going on.  But Bourque skated three shifts after delivering his cowardly blow, and no one layed so much as a finger on him.  Anyone on this team could have had their crack at Bourque, and all declined.  That is inexcusable.

Nick Backstrom is second only to Alex Ovechkin in importance to this team — this year, and frankly for the next decade.  He is as integral a piece to this organization as anyone.  The fact that no teammate was willing to stand up for him after he was taken out by such a blatant cheap shot is disturbing.  You can bet if that had happened to Kelly Miller back in the day, the Caps current head coach would have leapt off the bench to go after the offender.

Tuesday night’s incident is not isolated though this season.  Multiple times Capitals goalies have been “snowed” at the end of a play without retribution.  Twice against Calgary, in fact, Tomas Vokoun was contacted after the whistle by a Flames forward without so much of a shove from a Caps defender.  It’s become so routine that I’d be surprised if teams aren’t instructing their forwards to go ahead and get their stick in there on the Caps’ goalie, there won’t be any retribution.

Watch next time out.  When the Caps are on the forecheck, any time they get in close, let alone make contact with a goalie, there will be pushing and shoving in front of the net.  Defensemen are taught to make sure the forwards know they are there at all times.  If they’re thinking about getting hit, they aren’t thinking as much about where they’re putting the puck.  This rarely happens in the Capitals end.  Just watch for yourself.

Again, I’m not calling for attempts to injure.  But hockey is a physical game.  And it’s not just about fighting.  There’s a time and a place for that.  But I’m talking about the toughness it takes to play this game “the right way.”  Hunter talks about it all the time.  Part of playing “the right way” is standing up for your goalie or a fallen teammate.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP


  1. Excellent and very frustrating point.

  2. If we were higher in the standings (or out of the playoff hunt), I’d agree 100%. Wins have been at a premium recently however, and the last thing they need to do is take a penalty for retribution and blow whatever current hot streak they’re on. The Caps are 1 point out of not being in the playoffs (the highest they’ve been in a while). Every point is at a premium this season, so taking a dumb penalty, that late in the game, for retribution wouldn’t have been wise. The Hunter you speak of, he’s sitting there on the bench now. If he thought it prudent to take action, a subtle tap on Erskine’s back would have been all it took. Erskine didn’t take another shift. Caps got 2 points.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Clint, thanks for the comment.

      IMO, you can play physically and make your statement without incurring a penalty, dumb or otherwise. With regard to protecting the goalie, there just needs to me more physicality protecting their crease overall.

      Honestly, with a two-goal lead and ten minutes left, I’d have taken the risk to protect my top-line center. Erksine said he would have too after practice today, but he didn’t get a shift after the play.

      • ..and thank you for the reply. Trust me, I understand your points completely. The team has lacked, it seems, a willingness to stick up for one another in the past, including this year, which is very frustrating. What angered me the most was that this cheap shot was from a player (team) that’s not even in our conference. Taking liberties like that at someone you play once a season just made no sense to me (not that it ever does, but I digress). On the other hand, that is also why I think it was best for the Capitals not to respond in kind (this time). Had it been a Tampa or a Pittsburgh, I would have understood.

        I too read the Erskine quote, and I don’t doubt him for a second, I love his style of play and his heart. But to my earlier point, if Coach Hunter had tapped a back or two, retaliation would have happened, absolutely. I think he, along with the players and fans alike, are just thirsty for wins, consistency and to get to the post season and didn’t want to jeopardize the two points.

        Here’s to hoping #19 is alright, and that Bourque gets punished accordingly. I thought we’d have heard something about that by now.

  3. Scott Gater says:

    Very odd that a team run by Dale Hunter – one of the “greatest” antagonist possibly of his era didn’t get someone to go have a “talk” with Borque. I agree, I’m not calling for someone to go and kill the guy, but he should be held accountable on the ice and off.

  4. Excellent post Dave. I agree completely. Outside of any retribution for the hit on Nicky, that entire game lack physicality. I was muttering to myself the entire time how they were getting pushed around in their own end; taking contact rather than initiating it. This seems to ebb and flow from game to game. Not surprising, the games they dominate are the ones where they own the physical play 5-on-5. The Caps won the game because of their power play but were outplayed 5-on-5. They did well to keep the volume of shots down against Vokun, but the ones he had to stop were “10-bellers”.

  5. The only problem with your piece is that it isn’t strong enough. The main point that the Caps should have responded to the cheap shot is correct. But why NOT an AGGRESSIVE response? I have no problem with a retaliatory run at a skill guy on the opposing team or their goalie after a cheap shot like that. THAT is how a team gets respect around the league, by sending the message that you cheap shot our star, we’ll go after yours. The Caps are, I believe, a soft team and known as such around the league. This incident will only reinforce that image.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Joe, thanks for the comment. I disagree with you that’s a method that teams earn “respect” for. In fact, the complete opposite. No one respects players that go after skill players like that. Two different concepts. I don’t — and never will — advocate running a skill player unless he’s the one that committed the original sin. Take it out on the guilty party. I do agree with you that the Caps have earned a “soft” tag, if indeed that is how they’re known around the league. You can tell by the way forwards take liberty in the Caps end. They skate in with no concern for retribution.

      • I mean “respect” in the sense that if you send the message that the other team’s skill guys are at risk if you target my skill guys, they will lay off. THAT is the message that needs to be credibly sent by the Caps in my opinion

  6. Erskine didn’t play in the final 16 minutes of that game… If he played the full way through he definitely would’ve went over and roughed up that piece of garbage. But other than him only Brouwer or Hendricks would be likely to say something.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Yeah, Erskine even said after practcie the next day he would have “talked” to Bourque. but he didn’t get the chance. thanks for the comment.


  1. […] which the other Caps players just seemed to allow. Dave Nichols of District Sports Page wrote about what is expected of skaters when their goalie is under attack, but we’re just not seeing that toughness from our team […]

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