Ever happen to watch the “classic” NHL games featured on your local carrier or on the NHLN? I am surprised Gary Bettman allows them to even be shown, after all, isn’t that the violence he has tried so hard to scrub clean from the game’s image? Granted, there is clutching and grabbing the likes of which aren’t seen at even the junior prom, but there are also an abundance of devastatingly hard, but clean hits, and few, if any are seen to be head hunting.
So why in today’s squeaky clean antiseptic NHL does there appear to be such an abundance of cheap, dirty, and careless play? What role do the manufactured “villains” like Sean Avery, Dan Carcillo, and Matt Cooke play in today’s game, as none of whom would have lasted a New York minute in the frontier justice days of Bobby Clarke, Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, or Derek Sanderson? In the 70′s, 80′s, and even 90′s, the NHL player displayed an understanding of the “unwritten” rules of the game, if not a healthy respect for their fellow players. When a player like Pat Quinn made a decision to cheap shot the likes of Bobby Orr, he knew there was a price to pay – and it was not coming by way of Campbell’s Wheel of Justice, nor would it be in the form of an orchestrated fight by two designated team enforcers. In fact, Orr preferred to fight his own battles, 39 in all. Orr is as widely respected by fans as one of the best to ever play the game, but for the players he shared the NHL ice with, he was also regarded as a fierce competitor.
In today’s NHL we have paralyzation by regulation. Trying to legislate “clean” hits and asking game officials who can hardly keep from being fooled on hooking, holding, and diving to maintain an honorable game. In today’s NHL through 15 games this season Bruins’ defenseman Mark Stuart has had to defend himself in three fights following clean hits, while center Marc Savard remains sidelined suffering post concession syndrome as a result of an unsuspended and barely defended blindsided hit at the hands of villain and cheap shot artist extraordinaire, Matt Cooke. I do believe that Stuart would rather stand toe to toe with an opponent taking exception to his physical play than hope an official actually saw the hit and/or let Campbell spin his wheel of justice and hope for the “lose a turn” slot to come up in his favor.
Now Bettman’s chief disciplinarian, Colin Campbell, comes under fire for his lack of decorum when discussing decisions of discipline, but in all reality should have been called on the carpet long ago for an appalling lack of consistency in terms of a singular message regarding player safety. When the league reworked the instigator rule it was to tighten the screws on “staged” fights and fights after “clean” hits. In the 1980′s 30% of the fights had an instigator penalty tagged to them, but in the 80′s the instigator application had less to do with enforcers “gooning up” the game and more to do with the changing climate of fewer finesse players fighting their own battles (the Gretzky factor). The NHL front office is now trying to do the work of the players, and it is a losing battle. The Avery suspension for “sloppy seconds” was absurd, and if left to players to handle there likely would not have been any further issue, because if any player actually cared, Avery would have been made ugly enough that no amount of beauty product would have restored his image. Instead James Wisniewski was suspended earlier this season for a gesture which, while not exactly was “Rated G” on the Bettman entertainment scale, was no where near as damning as Mike Richards’ hit on David Booth a year ago.
Now the NHL wants to do something to legislate “hits to the head” as NHL GM’s are feeling the loss of star power with the likes of Savard, John Tavares, and Paul Kariya. However, if one would like to use the number of fights after alleged “clean hits” as a barometer it is not too hard to see that the players were far ahead of the curve with the necessity to protect their own. There have always been reckless players in the NHL, and there always will be regardless of who is doling out the punishment. However, it is difficult to dispute that there is anything more hockey-esque than the players policing their own game. No one knows better than they do of the honest players on the ice, and the ones who approach the game and their opponents with a total lack of respect, worthy of a beating. I cannot believe there is a player in the game who would prefer that Campbell sit in his office spinning his wheel to determine their fate, and that of their team. If Cooke, Carcillo, Avery, Chris Neil, Steve Ott, Chris Pronger, and Steve Downie (just to name a few) were to have to answer the call of NHL justice at the hands of the peers I believe they would likely think twice as to the how, when, and where of their actions. That is no way to imply that Marc Savard wouldn’t be struggling along the road to recovery right now, in fact I don’t doubt for a minute that Cooke wouldn’t do the same thing the next time the two faced each other. However, in MY NHL the expectation is that the Bruins would have finished that contest with the minimum number of players on the bench, if necessary, until the message was received loud and clear by Cooke and his teammates that his play was reprehensible. Chances are, with that kind of immediate justice the leaders of Cooke’s Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, and at that juncture Bill Guerin, would have had to be certain they were all willing to back his play, and if not Mr. Cooke and others like him would be running around a while lot less.
So Mr. Bettman, if you must let your boy Colin spin The Wheel of Justice, how about limiting it to things like violations of the uniform policy, or maybe size of goalie pads, illegal sticks, or even something really crazy like officials who get bilked by the Canadian National Diving Team? Let’s put control of the honor game back into the hands of the players, how about making the instigator penalty something interesting like putting the offender in goal for a penalty shot (since we all know how fond of them you are) or maybe put the team Captain in the box for the 2 mins, and eliminate the 10 min misconduct so you can leave the “teeth” in the rule for the staged fights you are so concerned about ruining the image of the game (insert laugh and MMA reference here). Regardless, if you truly are interested in players respecting each other and the game then let them police it OR put together a committee of ex-NHL’ers like Stan Mikita, Bobby Clarke, Bobby Orr, Mike Bossy, Brendan Shanahan, Paul Coffey, Terry O’Reilly and even Scott Stevens, and let them review suspension worthy behavior and make their recommendations directly to you. If you are at all interested in restoring credibility to the disciplinary aspect of the league there is no better way than to get investment and involvement from players who had a deep respect for the game and their opponents.
The beauty of the NHL game is the speed, skill, and toughness necessary to play it courageously and fearlessly. There is no need to remove any aspect of that very successful formula, however in order for the game to develop and grow, players need to understand and respect its past and be willing to cultivate a deeper respect of the honor in playing the game for it to flourish in the future.