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Eric Staal, Marc Staal and the respect issue in today's NHL

I've written here a few times about the head shots debate and how, ultimately, the responsibility falls not on Colin Campbell and the NHL policemen, but on the players and how they choose to approach one another.

Last night in Raleigh, the respect debate took a strange turn: Eric Staal caught his kid brother with a shoulder hit as Marc Staal searched for the puck -- and while he was being hooked by Carolina's Joni Pitkanen.

Marc Staal left the game the next period with what the Rangers called a twisted knee; nothing serious, the team said. No concussion, though the Rangers are certainly aware that concussion symptoms can crop up at any time.

It was still shocking to see two brothers engage in the sort of play that the league has been trying to eliminate. Eric Staal's hit was technically legal; the foul on the play was Pitkanen's hook. But it was the hockey equivalent of a chop block in football, with a player engaged and distracted by an opponent while a third player delivers a legal hit.

Ryan Callahan reacted strongly -- this is the second time a Staal has delivered a borderline/dirty hit on a Ranger in the last month, even if Eric kept this one in the family -- and Eric Staal reacted with something less than contrition, admitting he saw Marc with his head down but saying, "It happens."

Well, it doesn't have to. There are hits in hockey that are legal, but players know they are avoidable. There are players who are physical, who lead with their hands when they hit, and those who lead with a hard-shell shoulder pad or an even harder shell elbow pad. There are hits on the forecheck to disrupt a breakout pass, and hits on defenseless opponents with their heads down that don't affect the play one bit.

Eric Staal's hit was legal. That doesn't mean it wasn't a dirty play, despite the league website cheerfully touting the video at the top of their home page (which is a debate for another time).

And now, two brothers, two All-Stars, are drawn into a debate about respect. Amazing.

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