Shea Weber kicked off the antics. (Flickr/Sarah Fuqua)
When otherwise sportsmanlike players make decidedly unsportsmanlike plays. In game one of the Predators/Red Wings series, the man on the left gripped Henrik Zetterberg by the back of the head and slammed him face first into the plexiglass several times. This occurred after the final horn. I doubt it would have seemed any more gentlemanly had he done so during regulation play. For this offense he was fined $2,500 dollars. He was not suspended. Why you ask? Oh, I suppose the league would like to dust off the old chestnut of “letting the players decide the game on the ice.” They said it wasn’t so bad in context. I bet they’d have changed their mind, given the current context.
The Battle of Pennsylvania
The image of Sidney Crosby swipping an opponents glove aside with his stick as he tried to retrieve it from the ice is embossed upon my mind. That childish act ignited a powder keg of playground behavior, complete with hair pulling. James Neal was particularly active in dolling out street justice. After things settled down and the refs were ready to resume play, Pens coach Dan Bylsma put Neal right back on the ice. Everyone in Pennsylvania knew what was about to happen. Why didn’t the refs kick Neal out of the game right then and there? Excellent question. Of course, the melee resumed. Game three of the Pens/Flyers series resulted in suspensions for Pittsburgh players Craig Adams, Arron Asham and James Neal. All three were guilty of delivering hits intended to injure or piling on during a fight. Sticks and elbows were employed in ways meant to maim.
Who knew that a Sens/Blue Shirts series would elicit so much animosity? First Senator defenseman Matt Carkner grounds-and-pounds Cro-magnon Brian Boyle for his school yard bullying of teammate Erik Karlsson in a previous game. Both Carkner and Rangers center Brandon Dubinky are tossed after the ensuing scrum. Later in the same game Rangers forward Carl Hagelin brutally elbows perennial All-Star Daniel Alfredsson head-first into the corner glass. Carkner sat for one game for his fist of fury. Hagelin received a three game suspension for injuring the veteran captain. The Blue Shirts were employing their typical goonish tactics and the Senators responded with little discipline.
The Playmaker Loses His Cool
It’s not only the tough guys that act like fools come playoff time. The highly skilled players are shadowed and goaded by defencemen who drape themselves over their backs, matching stride for stride. Nagging tugs, hooks, slashes and little trips here and there add up. Verbal abuse grates like a pebble in their shoe. As much as they try to tune it out and focus, the little injuries and hurts make it hard to ignore the physical and mental insults hurled at yourself and your teammates. In game three of the Caps/Bruins series Nicklas Backstrom lost his cool and cross-checked Rick Peverley in the face near the end of the game. This cost him a one game suspension. If he is serious about making a run at the Cup he can’t lash out in anger, especially not in the first round. There are many more insults and injuries to suffer if he wants to be a champion.
The Five Time Loser
Raffi Torres, you magnificent goon. Is there another current player that targets opposing skater’s heads more often and with as much success, nay, as much zeal, as this Coyotes forward? In the first period of game three versus the Blackhawks he took out their regular season leading scorer Marian Hossa via a charge. Torres leapt into a check, driving his shoulder into Hossa’s head. The Hawk’s forward lay on the ice for five minutes before being carted off to the hospital. No penalty was called. This led to an extended altercation on the ice wherein fellow Hawk Brian Bolig earned a game misconduct penalty. After review, the league suspended Torres for twenty-five games. How can a play that does not earn a ref’s rebuke end up in such a long suspension? Doesn’t that call the leagues integrity into question?
Anyone notice a pattern? Most of these events took place during game three of their respective series. That’s just long enough to really hate someone who has pounded you relentlessly. In the playoffs everything is amplified, especially the hitting. Those collisions lead to feelings of vengeance. With every body check comes the desire to one-up the opposition. Eventually a line is crossed. It is up to the team leaders to keep the bench focused. Sadly, many of the captains are involved in these altercations. What if Sid the Kid hadn’t slugged that glove away? What if Weber hadn’t acted the fool? Too late to tell. With the culture of violence in the league, neither of them will lose the C.
Hockey can be a beautiful game. It can be elegant. It can be powerful. It can exemplify sacrifice and the importance of team. It can transcend national affiliations and bring people together. It can also be an ugly, petty thing. It can reduce grown men into squabbling children. It can become melodrama on par with professional wrestling. Seriously, if I know who is about to fight and why, hasn’t the game been rendered a pre-planned combat sport? I recall Bill Clement saying that more people come to the games to see the fights than stay away because of them. If that’s true, and I don’t concede that it is, then it only serves to stagnate the league. Catering to those who come to the arena to bang on the glass like sadists on a fish bowl will not grow the sport.
The players are people; athletes with pride and years of dedicated play under their belts. They should be treated with respect, not as gladiators to bloody one another for our amusement. To grow the sport the league must appeal to a mass audience that expects sane and consistent discipline for violent acts. It must sell players with personalities; players that women and children do not want to see bloodied and unconscious. Want to see Sid or Alex doing a Sony commercial in prime time? Protect them like Manning and Brady. We don’t need Brendan Shanahan to do that. He is from the “Bad Old Days” as far as I am concerned. He will perpetuate this culture because he is of this culture. We need someone from the outside. Perhaps a former NFL official as rules enforcer, someone who can stabilize a woefully unstable and dangerous situation.
The Double Standard
And, finally, I would be remise if I did not mention the following: can you imagine the outcry if such offenses occurred during the NBA playoffs? Eighty-two percent of NBA players are black. The pundits and commentators would revile the urban rap culture as one that worships violence. They would point to the NBA as the epitome of everything wrong with young people. Baggy pants and corn rows would be under scrutiny. Just imagine LeBron James delivering a flying elbow to Kobe Bryant while fighting for the ball, one so vicious that Bryant had to be wheeled off the court. A series of fist fights ensue. Things finally calm down. The game resumes. The refs never call it a foul, but James is eventually suspended. Just imagine that. Now ask yourself: why is it ok for hockey to be so overtly violent, especially during the playoffs? Why is it accepted as normal? Would you feel the same if someone you loved was elbowed in the head? Or subject to a beat down? I posit that the league must shed this image of thuggish buffoonery if it ever wants to be taken seriously again.