Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is the NHL Getting Out of Control?

Umm yeah.  You can't leave your feet and launch your body as a missile.  Hope Torres is gone for a long time.  And this is coming from someone who's not a Hossa fan.

In late 2004 and early 2005, there was no NHL season due to the lockout.  It was a dark time for the sport as no other 'top 4' league had cancelled an entire season.  Since then however, popularity and TV ratings along with attendance, merchandise sales, and overall awareness of the NHL has increased to all time high levels above even the Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux 1990s decade.  With the addition of an NHL lankmark game that is the Winter Classic and the new NBC television contract, the league has positioned itself nicely with superstars Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Tim Thomas, and many many others becoming the faces of the new league so-to-speak.  

Every year in mid-April, the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup begins.  It's a grueling 2 month long second season for the 16 qualifying teams and the games are full of passion and hate.  Teams that would normally not hate each other become instant enemies during the course of a 7 game series.  Series last 2+ weeks and when it's only one team you are facing night in and night out, it only makes sense to develop a strong dislike of the other sweaters.  This rings true for fan bases as well, if not more so than the players and coaches.

Nevertheless, the NHL is in a trying time.  Over the past year and a half, many of the games best players have suffered concussions and head shots are a looming issue in the upcoming expiring CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) between the league and it's players' association in September.  Side note:  fingers crossed we don't have to cancel the entire season again...On top of this issue is the current state of illegal hits and fighting in the playoffs.  NHL head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan (or Shana'ban') has been up to his knees, if not waist, in potential suspensions.  Here's a list of the ones so far:

Now you can probably YouTube all of these and argue some warrant MUCH longer suspensions.  The playoffs are tricky because outside of 4 games, teams are not guaranteed to play.  Arron Asham of the Pens was suspended for 4 games.  The Pens were down 3-0 when the decision was made.  The Pens could have lost last night and his suspension would technically have only been 1 game.  It's muddy water.  While 8 players listed seems like a lot, there are 3-4 players not even listed because they were just fined.  This list should easily be over 10 and growing.  We are only 1 week into the playoffs.  That's nearly 1 player per team already gone.

Shanahan has even come out to state that a player's injury influences his decision.  Why do sports, hockey in particular, think that intent doesn't overshadow injury?  In our current system of government, intent can be just as bad as the actual crime itself.  One can argue it's just a game but if you watched any post-whistle scrum or a blood bath brawl, one can clearly differentiate between a hockey play and a non-hockey play.  Shanahan, in only his 1st year in this position, is clearly becoming the poster child for violence in the NHL.  So far he's underwhelmed in this writer's opinion.  

This game is violent and it takes a tough man to play this game.  In fact, the hit I have at the top of this article 15 years ago would have been considered "clean" or a good "hockey play." The hitting has not changed, the way we portray the hits has changed.  With what we know about concussion and head injuries, it's not a goon's game anymore.  Players have missed extended periods of time and even one Marc Savard, a former all-star caliber player had to retire because of his lingering effects.  It ruined the careers of Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya.  These 1 or 2 game suspensions just aren't going to deter players.  Fines? Don't even joke around, who cares.  We watched 3 players this past summer who were known as fighters all die because of issues relating to mental capacity from their role in the game.

So many people love this game.  Coaches, GM's, fans, players, media, and society in general all agree it's not good for the players or the game.  So why is it so difficult to institute change?  It's elementary as Sherlock Holmes would put it.  They are afraid if they ban all these hits and give out huge suspensions, they won't have a game anymore.  Here's a tip:  Try it and see what happens.  I guarantee you the game doesn't disappear or even change for that matter.  If you start reigning in the outrageous hits, they become less prevalent and the culture changes.  Culture change isn't a bad thing.  They should be encouraging it.  

The playoffs in hockey are similar to March Madness in college basketball.  Nearly every night you see two teams (trust me this league has more parity than any other, not even close) going at it until the final buzzer and sometimes the final buzzer goes off an extra 2 or 3 times.  A lot of Pens fans that I know, including Mr. Powers, had no idea how awesome so many teams are until they watch them in the playoffs.  As a former Columbus Blue Jacket employee, I know how many of those fans love playoff hockey.  So please Mr. Shanahan.  Don't wuss out and give into the antics of these players.  Remember the James Wisniewski suspension?  8 regular season games for punching a guy.  Longest one of the year and it happened in the pre-season.  Let's get back to that kind of attitude and I can bet ya the game will change for the better.

It starts with the players and their mindsets, it's time to start changing that mindset...beginning now.

The Raffi Torres hit on Marian Hossa in the above video will be reviewed and ultimately determined tomorrow.  Make a statement NHL, make it one worth praising and one that will define a new standard in this league that we all love.