The Good ‘Ole Hockey Game

Mario Lemieux has spoken out about the increase in violence in professional hockey, calling the recent examples of brawls and hitting a “travesty” that makes him question his future involvement in the NHL. One of the legends of the game, Lemieux’s harsh criticism of the NHL should sound a warning that there are serious issues with the management of the sport, both on and off the ice. But, there are critics who would point out that Lemieux has one of the dirtiest players in the league on his team and that he is known for demanding aggression from his players. The topic of fighting and head-shots in hockey has polarized fans into camps that, on the one hand, argue that the sport should be about skill and talent and respect the long-term health of the players, and others who feel that restricting physicality will soften the sport too far.

With the recent injuries to players like Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby, what can plainly be said is that games like the recent Pittsburgh-Islanders tilt, or the Boston-Montreal brawl the night before, are in contravention of the notion that hockey is a game about skill and that it’s tough without being violent. The question is, which should it be?

As a fan of hockey for more than 25 years, I have seen my fair share of hockey fights and brutal plays. I have seen the blood and the broken teeth. I remember the two handed baseball swings at heads. And, not once have I found it entertaining or endearing.

I readily admit I fall into the category of hockey fans that the other cetegory labels as “ballerinas.” I am not a fan of Don Cherry and his “tough as nails” attitude towards the sport. Personally, I think that violence detracts from the game, and I will admit that I was a fan of the instigator rule when it was first imposed, stiffening the penalties for starting a fight on the ice to the point that we no longer see enforcers as a part of the game the way they once were. I wanted to see the speed and the talent and the beautiful plays in front of the net, and in goal.

Things always find a way of adjusting though, don’t they? When you take with one hand, you give with the other. Enforcers were no longer able to pick fights or drop the gloves the way they once were, limiting the fighting in the sport, but the result was that the dirty and dangerous play that had been kept in check by the threat of the 300lb gorilla on the bench suddenly gained license. It used to be that if you took a run at the other team’s talent, you were almost assured that the slavering goon on the bench would remove you from your senses at the next opportunity. With the instigator rule, the goon was chained to the bench and unable to police the other team’s agitators.

There aren’t many teams without a questionable player. Montreal used to have Maxim Lapierre, who played on the dangerous side of edge. New York has Sean Avery, who plays beyond the edge and resides somewhere in the realm of asshole. There’s Milan Lucic on Boston, Matt Cooke on Pittsburgh, Colby Armstrong on Toronto, Chris Neil and Jaarko Ruutu on Ottawa, and a host of others around the league. Some of these players are capable of fighting, but for the most part they just stir things up by being assholes and trying to provoke the other team into doing something that will lead to a penalty.

Many of those things are dangerous.

Matt Cooke was responsible for the hit that ended Marc Savard’s season last year, a blatant hit to the head that knocked Savard to the ice and left him motionless for minutes. It’s happened with disturbing frequency this year, players taking an elbow or shoulder to the head from an off angle or being driven head first into the boards. The fact that nobody has suffered a broken neck is something of a miracle, really, considering the size and speed these guys connect with.

And, there are those who would excuse it in exactly that manner. The players are bigger and faster than in pervious generations, and that makes the game that much faster. As a result, accidents will happen in the split-second decision making that occurs in the heat of the game, and sometimes that will lead to injuries. Couple that with the near bullet-proof armour these guys wear and you have a sporting environment where dangerous collisions should be accepted as a risk of engaging in the game at that level.

With players like Crosby being put out of the game for weeks because of concussions, the prospect is that the talent that drives the game could be in jeopardy. What would happen if “the greatest player since Wayne Gretzky” was forced into early retirement because of concussion symptoms from a dirty head-shot?

The league keeps preaching that they are cracking down on dangerous hits to the head, and that the penalties will be swift and severe. Yet, the two hits that put Crosby out of the game were neither penalized nor drew supplementary suspensions. The first hit that put Savard out did not draw a suspension either. And, there are dangerous hits almost every night, and in most cases there are no suspensions, or there is a fine levied instead of discipline. The league is talking a great game, but not following through with any tangible evidence of their seriousness.

Assholes like Don Cherry will preach that rough and tumble play is a mainstay of the game, and that hockey isn’t “ballet on ice.” I’d counter that it’s not UFC on ice either. Guys like Chris Pronger, who have been suspended 9 times in the course of their career for dirty and dangerous play, shouldn’t be in the game. If the league was really serious about stamping out dangerous play, there would be automatic 10, 20 and season suspensions. I would like to see a first suspension of 10+ games, a second suspension of 25+, a third of a season and a final expulsion from the league. And the player’s salary applies to their cap limit for the season for the duration of the suspension. Sounds harsh? Ask Marc Savard how long his concussion is going to be suspending his play this year. Ask Crosby how many games he’s going to sit out because of his injury.

And, hits to the head aren’t all. Games like the Boston-Montreal match, or the Pittsburgh-New York game, should not be tolerated. A team targeting another team the way Boston did, or the way New York did, should be heavily punished. Otherwise, the game becomes the joke that was made of Hockey in Newman’s “Slapshot!”. It’s disgusting, it’s dangerous, and to borrow Lemieux’s term, it’s a travesty.

I’ve reversed my position on the instigator rule. Much to my chagrin, I’m agreeing with that loudmouthed moron Don Cherry on this one. Let the enforcers take care of policing the play and I think a lot of the dangerous crap will start to trail off. If you know that hitting the rookie talent on your opposition’s bench will result in the bulging ex-con on their side crushing the skull of your talent, you’ll think twice about being dirty. And if you don’t, the bloodletting that ensures is your just rewards. It’s not that I want to see the fights, it’s that letting the fighters do their job means that baboons like Lucic won’t be picking fights with players who really aren’t suited to it. Proof? How many times did I watch George Laracque challenge Lucic openly, and Lucic wouldn’t even raise his eyes from the ice to acknowledge it.

Something has to change in the sport, and not because a retired player like Lemieux expresses his disgust. Something has to change because at the pace that things are going, someone will be killed on ice by some nasty, dirty hit. Someone will end up paralyzed or brain damaged. And the league will be sitting back counting their revenues watching the blood flow, chirping about how seriously they take dangerous hits in the sport.

You want to see them take it seriously? Put that little circus midget Garry Bettman on the ice with the likes of Pronger, Cooke or Carcillo bearing down on him and he’ll be praying that someone could step in and intercede for him.

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