A little over 42 years ago, Minnesota North Stars Center Bill Masterton died after landing backwards and head first onto the ice during a game with the Oakland Seals. In the days following his death, the newly expanded National Hockey League began to seriously contemplate the consequences of allowing players on the ice without helmets. Regulation gear for today’s NHL is considerably different. The players from that 1968 season would probably look at the pads, the helmets and the skates and come to the conclusion that no one could possibly get hurt playing hockey in the 21st Century .
Anyone who has been invested in the league as a fan or a player will tell you that this is not the case. The game is faster, more physical and far more dangerous than it was in the last century. The reason for this isn’t the pads or the increase in players’ size or improvements in fitness technology. At the risk of sounding like I am engaging in sports Comstockery; the degeneration of the gentlemen’s code that has governed the game for so long is at the heart of what makes hockey in its current form resemble a lawless brawl.
Its a given that hockey is intensely physical. Emotions run high and the mentality of those who suit up is often close to that of someone who is preparing for battle. In interviews, athletes talk about grit and nerve and playing with a warrior’s heart and as fans and writers we encourage that because it is a rightful part of the sport. What isn’t right is when the play goes beyond routine roughness into something that is more reflective of an assault. Surgical hits that are executed with the intention to disable players are getting to be too commonplace.
In March 8th, 2004, Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi attempted to challenge Avalanche center Steve Moore to a fight. Moore refused to engage and skated away. Bertuzzi skated after him and punched him in the back of the head, causing him to fall. He fell onto him, still hitting and the force drove his head into the ice, fracturing three of his neck vertebrae, cutting his face and giving him a concussion. For punishment, Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the season. Moore’s career as a professional hockey player was finished. For whatever reason, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reinstated Bertuzzi in 2005 and he is still playing for the NHL.
It is arguable that Commissioner Bettman could have sent a strong message to the league had he informed Bertuzzi that he could play hockey when Moore was able to play hockey again. Could this latest rash of dirty attacks on the ice over the past two weeks -almost exactly five years after Bertuzzi ended Moore’s career- have possibly been prevented if the perpetrators thought they could lose their own careers if they deliberately endangered someone else?
Would Derek Boogaard have raised his stick in celebration after his knee-on-knee hit on Ryan Jones if he thought he would be spending more than two games in suspension? When people like Boogaard and Downie, who attempted to do a knee roll on Sidney Crosby earlier today, commit these acts, they know that they may miss a few games or spend some time in the penalty box but there is no accountability for their actions beyond that. When someone as talented as Alexander Ovechkin engages so unnecessarily in such shenanigans, he knows he is going to get, at the very worst a game ejection and possibly a light suspension. Think about it: If Matt Cooke wasn’t wearing the colors of one of the favored franchises in the league, his actions -more attacks than anything resembling legitimate rough play- would have landed him in prison long before he inflicted a head shot to Bruins center Marc Savard that resulted in a Grade 2 concussion.
For this last debilitating attack on Savard, Cooke was given…nothing. According to the officials and the people at the NHL regs office in Toronto, Cooke didn’t break any rules. So he spent no time in the penalty box, no time away from the game, for him, it’s business as usual. Given that Bettman gave Bertuzzi’s expression of remorse as a good enough reason to reinstate him, it looks like Cooke will probably face no consequences for his actions. The argument that has been given in his defense is that it would be unfair to make him the test case. If this situation does not call for some sort of action beyond a few fruitless meetings and lots of handwringing on behalf of the NHL and the NHLPA, what will? Another death on the ice?
Hockey is a rough and tumble game. It is also a game of strategy and finesse, a gentlemen’s game where there are long held rules of engagement that keep things civilized. The men who break those rules, who inflict those dirty hits are neither gentlemen nor are they legitimate ahtletes. They are mere thugs and there is no place for them in the NHL. It would be unrealistic and not too terribly appealing to see hockey turned into a zero-contact sport played by whey-faced altarboys. No one who loves or respects the game wants to see it devolve into senseless blood sport, either. It is, however, way past time for Gary Bettman and the NHL Powers That Be to act in the same spirit of love and respect for the game that keeps the people on both sides of the glass coming back. It is time for the NHL to send a strong message to those who try to substitue brute strength for talent and winning at any cost for bred in the bone sportsmanship. It is time for the NHL to do the right thing.