The NHL returned from its Christmas break last Monday evening, and by Tuesday afternoon there were more lumps of coal to report on the concussion front. Los Angeles’s Simon Gagne, Nashville’s Shea Weber, and Toronto’s John-Michael Liles (not all of them injured Monday night) were added to the fraternity of addled brains, increasing the league’s working number of head/brain injuries to right around three dozen.
Are we being entertained yet? I suppose so, because there is no denying that fans enjoy watching the NHL’s highly charged action and its big, dangerous hits. A brain that feels as if it’s a rattling box of shattered glass really isn’t a big deal, as long as it’s not your brain, or your life it will struggle to navigate over the course of another 30-50-70 years.
The hours immediately following the Gagne-Weber-Liles injuries brought a couple of very interesting responses from well-known NHL alums Mike Modano and Eric Lindros.
Both were dynamic performers in their day. Modano, who retired over the summer, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and was fortunate to retire with his head intact. Lindros, L’Enfant Terrible, had a bold but injury-riddled playing career and was ultimately forced to hang up his skates because, like his brother Brett, his bell was rung at least one too many times.
Modano chimed in on his Twitter account (@9modano): “3 more concussions today!! 3rd and 4th liners make too much money to be just hitters.’’
Amen, @9modano. I’ve made that point for years, well before the new NHL made seek-and-destroy the game’s new art form.
Take a look at the NHL’s 30 rosters, and it’s fairly easy to identify upward of 90 forwards - an average of three per team - who take to the ice each night with little intention of even trying to score a goal. They are out there solely to prevent goals, or worse, plaster opposing players with open-ice hits or into the wall. Usually it is a little bit of both.
I suppose it’s all hockey, in that everyone is wearing a uniform and carrying a stick. But while some players are practicing an art form, scores of others are trying to help their teams manufacture a win with mayhem and by deconstructing opposing players.
Now, on to Lindros, who no doubt tightened some shorts in NHL headquarters with his comments to the Canadian press agency QMI following his workout in Kingston, Ontario. Lindros was scheduled to play in yesterday’s Flyers alum game in Philadelphia, a prelude to tomorrow’s outdoor Winter Classic between the Flyers and Rangers.
“The game’s gotten too fast,’’ Lindros told QMI reporter Ian MacAlpine. “The red line is out and the game’s quicker. It’s inevitable there’s going to be more [concussions].’’
Again, I made the point here last month that pulling out the center-ice red line, thus negating the offsides call on the two-line pass, has turned out to be an unintended peril. The Lords of the Boards meant to open up the game upon returning from the disastrous 2004-05 lockout and yanked the red line to negate obstruction/interference tactics.
But freewheeling has turned into open-season poundings and not just in the neutral zone. Forwards now generate tremendous speed between the blue lines and some of their most menacing hits are in the offensive zone, where they can crash into opposition forwards and especially defensemen with unimpeded, brutalizing force.
The old red line rule needs to be reactivated. Referees also should whistle more charging infractions. And, again as suggested here last month, the elbow and shoulder pads have to be softened and trimmed back even more. All of that would help reduce the number of head injuries, not to mention blown-out knees, separated shoulders, and fractured bones.
Roster size is a very touchy subject with players and their union, because every roster spot represents about $3 million in salary. Fine, leave the roster size alone (21-23 paid workers per team), but scale the nightly game roster back by two. Instead of heading into action with 18 skaters and two goalies, mandate coaches to dress only 16 skaters, most likely meaning 10 forwards and six defensemen.
In most cases, the two forwards to sit out would be precisely those players who make their gravy by negating goals and delivering hurt in small, medium, and large packages. Few in the viewing audience, or in charge of the scoresheet, would miss them very much.
Again, they’d still have jobs, because paid roster spots would remain in the collectively bargained 20-23 range, but they would be spare parts rather than essential pieces come game time. They also would serve as a taxi squad that would produce great competition for ice time, a coach’s dream. What’s not to like about that?
With the game trimmed of its nightly brat pack, the 10 most skilled forwards on each roster should be more productive, dealing in a workplace where they’re not unrelentingly checked and pummeled.
Forwards Nos. 11 and 12 on current rosters are often key penalty killers. If they’re not in uniform, PK units could be significantly hindered, leading to more power-play goals. As of Friday morning, 25 of the league’s 30 teams had scored on fewer than 20 percent of their power plays. That percentage should increase dramatically if coaches don’t have their favorite penalty killers sitting at the end of the bench.
Just for the sake of it, let’s look at the ice time logged Wednesday night by valued Boston fourth-liners Shawn Thornton (11:24), Danny Paille (11:42), and Greg Campbell (12:16). Because I’d prefer not to be pummeled by Thornton this week, I’ll leave him in the lineup and yank Paille and Campbell from the next game.
Tough sledding for Claude Julien, because he just lost two of his prime penalty killers. He also has to divvy up their combined 23:58 among 10 forwards, adding roughly 2:24 to each shooter’s workload. Not heavy lifting. It translates to about only one more shift per player each period. Zero concern.
Now, if Julien didn’t want to yank Paille or Campbell, he might opt to sit Thornton, which could be his pick if the night’s opponent lacked a guy with Thornton’s truculence. Or perhaps he’d keep one of them over, say, Benoit Pouliot or a struggling Nathan Horton. By and large, though, coaches go with speed and skill, and a 16-skater game roster would put more of that on the ice on a nightly basis. It also should dial back the concussions and the fights.
All in all, it’s an easy answer than retrofitting 30 rinks with bigger ice sheets or shifting to a full-time four-on-four game. Preserve overall roster numbers and pay, shrink game rosters, increase power-play scoring, and, most of all, improve the casualty numbers.
Mark a spot in Markham
Ah, what to do with that sad-sack Phoenix franchise that the NHL still owns and just can’t seem to sell at a reasonable price?
Here’s a thought. With developers eager to build a glistening state-of-the-art arena in Markham, Ontario, at the northern tip of Toronto, why not move the franchise there?
The NHL could retain ownership, recoup the lost millions of its failed desert experiment over time, and be a partner in one of sport’s greatest cross-town rivalries. That’s the sort of Manchester United-vs.-Manchester City stew that makes everyone over at Yawkey Way go totally gobsmack.
Now, how to settle this with the Maple Leafs for the Toronto trespass? Forty years ago last week, the Islanders, some 25 miles east of Madison Square Garden, formally took root as an NHL franchise at a total cost of $10 million (roughly one year of Alexander Ovechkin pay by today’s rates). The price included a $4 million “territorial fee’’ paid to the Rangers.
Given the size of the Toronto market (pop. approximately 5 million) and its rabid NHL fan base, the best way to compensate the Leafs could be for the league to retain ownership of the Markham franchise and then hand the Leafs a fair (i.e. negotiated) share of the annual profits, in perpetuity. Each of the other 29 NHL teams would share in the annual cash grab, but the Leafs, because it is their ’hood, would get the biggest chunk.
And let’s not forget, the collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. In the spirit of true partnership and fellow puck love, maybe the new franchise in Markham could be founded as a joint operating agreement between the league and its players. Not only would the Players Association share in the annual profits, or losses, it would once and for all know exactly the source and destination of a franchise’s every penny.
It would mean the working help also would have a seat at the Board of Governors meetings. Oh, to be in the room when the Lords and Lads clink mugs and talk of all things profit and loss.
Penguin thing just doesn’t fly
On Thursday night, Flyers winger Jaromir Jagr made his first “Flying P’’ visit to Pittsburgh, the place where he won two Cups in his long-haired juvenile days. He was treated to - what else? - a sound booing by Penguins fans. Should we be surprised? Probably not, especially here in the Hub of Hate. But, heck, the guy turns 40 next month, he last played for the Penguins in the spring of 2001, and has since been under the employ of the Capitals, Rangers, and Omsk Avangard in the KHL. He was wonderful to watch as a kid, winning Cups his first two years with the Penguins, and matured into one of the game’s all-time offensive performers (five seasons of 100-plus points). Yeah, I know, Booo! No one should have expected the locals to toss rose petals from the Consol Center stands, but after Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, Jagr is the second-best thing that ever happened to Pittsburgh hockey. Why rip the old man now during his champions tour on ice?
Respect your elders
On the subject of oldsters, as of yesterday morning four NHL teams were led in points by guys in the 35-and-over division. Scoring, not a dying institution, but instead one for the dying? The list: Patrik Elias, New Jersey; Vinny Prospal, Columbus; Teemu Selanne, Anaheim; and Ray Whitney, Phoenix. Of those four clubs, only the Devils, ranked sixth in the East, held a playoff spot.
Boston’s roaring 20s
Ex-Boston coach Don Cherry, on his “Grapevine’’ radio spot that aired last week on Fan590 in Toronto, rehashed how his 1977-78 Bruins set the record for most players (11) to finish the season with 20 or more goals. He went on to add that then-general manager Harry Sinden presented each of the 11 players with a fancy commemorative plaque, which in turn, noted Cherry, cheesed off the rest of the team. “Poor Harry,’’ said Cherry. “He just couldn’t win.’’ For the record, the 11 20-goal scorers: Peter McNab (41), Terry O’Reilly (29), Stan Jonathan (27), Bobby Schmautz (27), Rick Middleton (25), Jean Ratelle (25), Wayne Cashman (24), Gregg Sheppard (23), Brad Park (22), Bob Miller (20), and Don Marcotte (20). Miller, now 55, potted his 20th into an empty Toronto net, over a sprawled Borje Salming. “And everyone came running off the bench,’’ declared Cherry, “like we’d just won the Stanley Cup.’’
Labor pains ahead?
Donald Fehr, the NHLPA boss who has yet to begin CBA negotiations with the league, had this interesting response when the National Post’s Sean Fitz-Gerald asked about a potential labor stoppage: “The owners insisted upon and received enormous concessions from the players, so one would hope that those days are days that people can write in the history books, and we don’t have to look at them going forward.’’ We can take that a number of ways, and that’s likely Fehr’s calculated intention. Concession Numero Uno was the implementation of a salary cap, set at $39 million in the summer of 2005. No telling whether Fehr and the union will agree to move forward with the cap in place, or if Summer 2012 will see them try to reconnect with the free-market-or-die days.
Get out the green
Should be good fun at the Garden Saturday afternoon with Vancouver, last season’s Cup co-finalist, in town for its only regular-season visit. Will the creepy green guys find themselves spots in the stands? If so, could be pricey. The cheapest seats (end balcony) StubHub offered Friday morning were $188 apiece, and front row along the glass seats were pegged at $855 a pop.
Ex-Bruin winger Blake Wheeler, his scoring touch all but frozen since arriving in Winnipeg, entered last night on a four-game scoring streak of 2-4-6. Not bad for the big kid. Overall, he ranked second in Jets scoring with 27 points, only 2 behind Evander Kane . . . John-Michael Liles’s concussion came compliments of a hit 10 days ago by Paul Gaustad, the big Buffalo winger who engaged Milan Lucic in a courtesy bout when the Bruins and Sabres met for the first time after Lucic gave Sabres goalie Ryan Miller a buzz-cut . . . Marian Hossa, who will turn 33 Jan. 12, topped Chicago’s scoring chart with 17 goals and 41 points entering yesterday. If he keeps up the pace, Ottawa’s one-time top pick (No. 12 in ’97, 11 rungs below Joe Thornton) will finish with 90 points. The best output of his career was the 100 he posted with Atlanta in 2006-07 . . . More NHLers than just Adam McQuaid have wanted to beat the hinges off Raffi Torres the way the big Boston defenseman did Wednesday night in Phoenix. Torres, a member of the Canucks last season, is well-known for delivering nasty blind-side hits behind the net. Few around the league want to go toe-to-toe with McQuaid, but a lot of guys around the league would give him a pat on the back for the beat-down he gave the former Islander first-round pick . . . Leafs GM Brian Burke on extending the contract of coach Ron Wilson: “When the coach goes into the cage, he needs the chair and the whip, not just one of them.’’ Good imagery there. Personally, I’m convinced that what coaches need more than anything is one good goalie. Or they don’t have a leg to stand on . . . Injured Bruin Marc Savard issued this tweet Monday morning from his @Mavvy91 address: “Holidays are nice as long as you have people to share them with . . . kids are back with there [sic] mom wow it get [sic] lonely quick this time of year!’’ Worth keeping in mind for those of us who sometimes forget that the holidays can be both joyful and a struggle. That said, Happy New Year to all visitors, new and old, to this space. Without you, the Hub of Hockey just isn’t the same.