by pcoffey on 04/18/12 at 10:05 AM ET
“This has spiraled from out of control to total chaos. Do we really need a player to die on the ice for this insanity to stop?”
—NHL player agent Allan Walsh’s Tweet after Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian Hossa
Forget for a moment that there is no way the NHL is going to win the public relations battle stemming from what we have seen thus far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Hockey’s critics have more cannon fodder than could be hoped for to marginalize the sport once more.
Think back to the black eye the sport got after the Devils and Rangers opened a game with three inconsequential fights in a regular-season game. The sport took a beating over that. Now, we have seen real chaos in these playoffs from the Torres hit on Hossa to the ugliness of the entire Penguins-Flyers series to God knows how many others, take your pick. In Tuesday’s night’s New Jersey-Florida series, one that has actually been pretty tame, the Panthers’ Sean Bergenheim looked like your average pro wrestler when he took a hit from Anton Volchenkov and then bounced back off the boards to target the head of the Devils’ defenseman, who had fallen to the ice. Bergenheim got two minutes for roughing, a pretty light sentence when the intent was readily apparent.
What is happening on the ice and how the incidents are adjudicated off the ice are producing hoots of derision even from within the game. Now let’s get the excuses out of the way. Yes, passions are high when the Stanley Cup is the ultimate prize. Yes, playing the same team over a multi-game series produces bad blood. Yes, as the playoffs go deeper this all tends to settle down as teams realize they have to actually play hockey to win the Cup.
Yes, it is all about sending messages, but in this case, aren’t you becoming more concerned about what the message is these days?
And let’s spread the responsibility around, shall we?
The players bear a huge responsibility for how the game is played and cannot hang the blame entirely on the NHL’s officials or on Brendan Shanahan and the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which figures to become an even bigger joke if things don’t settle down fast.
The players make decisions to throw the dangerous hit, bring the stick up high, punch a vulnerable player or drop the gloves. Yes, yes, yes, the game is fast and what seems like a good hit can be a dirty one an instant later. But by now, every NHL player knows that little good can come from pile-driving a player head first into the boards, or punching one in the back of a head, or throwing a “clean” hit at an unsuspecting player.
Where is the respect? Aren’t these guys all union members? No wonder NHL owners like to play hardball in negotiations with the NHLPA, the lack of solidarity is appalling. And no hoots of derision please that back in the good old days players hated one another with a passion not seen today. No one is saying this all ought to be a love-in, but how about a common-sense approach where a modicum of thought is given to the concept that actions have consequences? Maybe the thrill of the predatory hit can be dulled by the thought of a player being taken off on a stretcher strapped to a backboard.
And Sidney Crosby, you’re on the docket today too. How about canning the sophomoric behavior of swatting an opponent’s glove away when he goes to pick it up. That’s the kind of cheap behavior you expect from the annoying jackass in every men’s league, not from a marquee player. Look up some old film of Jean Beliveau as an example of how to comport yourself. Actually, that isn’t a bad idea for all NHL players.
As for the on-ice officials, they have the toughest role because they need to make split-second decisions under intense pressure without benefit breaking it all down in super slo-mo like the rest of us. But the officials must display better situational awareness too. Going into the postseason, you didn’t have to be the Amazing Kreskin to realize Penguins-Flyers was going to require some tender, loving care. When a game is getting frighteningly close to chaos the game misconduct can be your best friend. Tossing James Neal instead of trying to get him across the ice to the penalty box would have been a better move than starting another round of nonsense.
And as for Shanahan’s role, let’s think back to the beginning of the season when he issued some harsh suspensions for bad, dangerous behavior. At the time, there was plenty of talk that a new sheriff was in town and the uneven decisions of Colin Campbell were a thing of the past. But there also was plenty of grumbling among the teams that Shanahan’s hardline approach was just too hard and maybe Shanahan needed to lighten the sentences.
Well, we now have plenty of evidence that backs up the notion “be careful what you wish for.” The decisions from the Department of Player Safety, while backed up by video, seem unfocused and uneven.
The resulting injury is the criteria for how long a suspension will be? Really? So, theoretically speaking, a two-hander across the legs of a player is less of a cause for concern because the shin pads absorbed the blow?
And we don’t see Shea Weber suspended for another wrestling move, but other lesser-name players are suspended?
OK guys, it’s your league, run it as you see fit. Shrug off the criticism from the media because they always have an ax to grind. As for the complaints of fans? Well, they’ll get over it.
But here is a bit of reality to ponder. NBC has pulled out all the stops to telecast hockey this spring. You can find games all over the TV schedule. And that’s great. But over the weekend, MSNBC.com, another arm of the NBC family, ran a top story about how dangerous kids hockey was becoming because of reckless hitting and the devastating impact of concussions.
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About Iced Coffey
Phil Coffey has covered the NHL since 1981, most recently as the Senior Editorial Director of NHL.com. He spent over 11 years there.