I didn’t want to blog anymore about the continuing rampant violence in the NHL, especially with the King of Conflict of Interests Colin Campbell at the helm. It had become a pointless exercise. Any more broken record jabber by me about headshots and excessive violence would have been useful if I got paid to write for this site, but I don’t, so I stopped talking about it. I’ve written about it plenty in the past, and my stance is quite obvious for anyone who’s been reading this site.
But the NHL’s continued incompetence has forced my hand once again, and like hundreds of other hockey blogs, I feel the need to sound off on what has been going on in these NHL playoffs.
Last night, notorious madman Raffi Torres set his crosshairs on Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa’s head and sent him to the hospital. Thankfully Hossa has since been released from hospital, but again, the culture of hockey that needs to change is so resolutely set in stone that anybody with a chance to change it either doesn’t want it changed (because they’re afraid and/or cowardly), or is content to ride out their careers and leave this mess for the next generation to clean up. This is not to let the on-ice officials off the hook. The quality of officiating in hockey today is in such a sorry state of disrepair. As the top-shelf hockey league in the world, the NHL needs to be embarrassed about the depths of stink that the referees have sunk to. Barely a night goes by without hearing a hockey fan somewhere groan when they learn which officials will be working their team’s game. Blaming the refs, a loser’s lament, has become an inescapable part of game analysis.
Throughout history (both real and fictional), there have been countless entities charged with protecting an institution. The NHL itself, the General Managers, the Board of Governors and the NHLPA all form an ecosystem that sets the direction for the sport and is responsible for ensuring the game’s growth and protecting its integrity. Over the last 20 years, hockey has grown in leaps and bounds, but I’m not so sure we can say the same about the integrity of the game. Perhaps in the NHL’s opinion, the ends justify the means. Integrity takes a back seat to profits, so it appears. Last year in the wake of the Chara/Pacioretty incident, Brian Burke waxed poetic about not wanting to change the “fabric of the game” with outright bans on headshots. Right. So instead, we’ll compromise the fabric of the game in other ways, most notably watching players leaving on stretchers for hits that should not be happening in the first place. It’s simply inexplicable that lewd gestures, and critical opinions are more offensive in the eyes of the league than is a shot that sidelines marketable star players for months on end.
When the execrable Colin Campbell was replaced by Brendan Shanahan, hockey fans rejoiced, or at worst were cautiously optimistic. Shanahan got off to a strong start as the czar of discipline, but it seems that before long, he received complaints from the powers that be, and his desire to mete out proper justice was once again, as it was with Campbell, thrown in to a state of confusion, disarray, and arbitrary justice. What was a 3 game ban for one player was a flaccid $2,500 fine for another. The famous two-tier system of different rules for stars vs grunts has once again come home to roost. Between Shea Weber turnbuckling Henrik Zetterberg’s head against the glass and James Neal’s Seal Team 6 mission to kill, a total of a 1 game ban and $2,500 in fines were dished out. Yet Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw gets 3 games for clipping a goaltender that was in the “hitting zone”. Arbitrary indeed! Everybody understands that a lot is at stake, especially in the playoffs. But if teams are free to eliminate the other team’s stars, then it won’t be long before we go from the bloodsport of today, to mutually assured destruction. (For the “I didn’t know the Titanic was real / Who is Paul McCartney” crowd, please click here to learn about Mutually Assured Destruction before continuing.)
There’s an old guard in hockey that passes the torch down from one generation to the next. The old guard exists at the league’s head office, within each team, within the NHLPA, and within the media. Those with access to a microphone seem to get off on telling fans who are fed up with the escalating violence to either go watch another sport, or to “man up”, because hockey has always been this way and should always be this way. What garbage. What an utterly myopic, dogmatic black and white view. Yes, hockey is a tough sport and nobody ever wants that aspect of the sport to change, but I didn’t know that headshots and tough, hard-hitting hockey go hand-in-hand. I didn’t know that clean play, and hard-nosed hockey were mutually exclusive. I guess I haven’t yet devoted enough time to the history of the game, or spend enough time watching hockey to know the difference.
The problem is that the dinosaurs are too thick-skulled to comprehend what people are saying. If you’re going to take a stand against reckless hits to the head, then be consistent with punishment, otherwise there’s no point in any of it. This old guard, usually a loud, boisterous, and opinionated group quickly reverts to chiding (usually of the emasculation type) whenever the topic of violence in hockey comes up. These people likely have shrines to their Rock Em, Sock Em collection, complete with VHS player that demonstrates just how out of touch and stubborn they are. They also like to tell us that “if we’ve never played the game at that level, we can’t have a real opinion”. That’s the last resort of somebody who lacks the intelligence to participate in a civilized discussion. What they’re in efffect telling us is that only current or former NHL players are allowed to opine on the sport, and that their word is gospel. If you ever find yourself in the presence of one of these people as they tell you how bad a particular movie is, kindly remind him that they’ve never held a job in film production, and they should therefore shut their pieholes.
This is about nothing but fear and cowardice on the part of the NHL, and of the vanguards of “old-time hockey”.
- Fear of seeing hockey evolve to the point where they don’t recognize it without the sheer brutality and over-the-top violence.
- Fear of becoming irrelevant and out of touch.
- Cowardice in that the powers that be circle their wagons and deflect all responsibility so that the status quo can resume.
- Cowardice to take the heat from the dinosaurs once real, meaningful change is enacted.
The NHL shuffles deck chairs and continues to play the shell game in terms of player safety. They like to keep us in a state of flux, somewhere between angry, confused and sedated. They fast track new rules to deter head shots and are all too eager to show the world what a progressive group they are when that happens. They drop moderately heavy hammers on bottom-feeding players in an attempt to persuade us that they are serious about player safety. Nonsense! We are back to square one. Back to that prickly limbo where everyone is left guessing as to what will happen next. The only guarantee is that the next devastating head shot is only hours away.
Surprisingly, the way to fix this is not all that hard. For the most part, hockey’s rules make sense. Referees are armed with the authority to curb much of happens on the ice, from elbows to the head, to savage hits from behind, to unsportsmanlike conduct, to post-whistle nonsense. For some reason – whether through legitimate confusion, incompetence or marching orders – referees are not calling games properly. Raffi Torres will be suspended for his filthy hit, yet he was not penalized on the play. If the officials can get their act together (and that’s a big, perhaps impossible “if”) and if the powers that be can let Shanahan do his job without meddling in his process, then perhaps some level of consistency can be attained.
But things have spiralled so far out of control already, with the old guard watching as it happens. Through their indecision and ineptness, they’ve encouraged it to happen. Case in point is the rampant retribution for clean hits that has become recently engrained in the game. Clean hits were never punishable to the extent that they are today, and this is in large part because officials refuse to crack down and enforce rules. The old guard, now more than ever seems content with cashing fat paychecks until retirement, leaving the next generation of NHL leaders to do what this current old guard is too scared and cowardly to do.