There is blood on the NHL’s hands, and that appears to be very good business, at least for the moment. Only a week into the Stanley Cup playoffs, NBC’s ratings are trending upward, and most everyone attributes the increase to the type of mayhem and anarchy that was on display Sunday between the Flyers and Penguins.
The hockey itself in Philadelphia, especially the goaltending and refereeing, was minor-league material. But with the thick layer of violence slathered on top, including an Arron Asham aggravated cross-check to Brayden Schenn’s chin followed by punches to the head of the pole-axed Flyers forward, it got a lot of people gushing about all the passion, testosterone, and so-called courage on display in playoff hockey.
All well and good, I suppose, if you think UFC and MMA are the preferred business models for a league that has struggled for decades to shoulder its way into the North American sports mainstream alongside baseball, football, and basketball. If the demented wonderland of UFC and MMA is what the NHL aspires to, then it’s on the right track, albeit at the cost of players such as Blackhawks superstar Marian Hossa being strapped to a body board Tuesday night and lugged to the hospital after he was hunted down and demolished by serial mugger Raffi Torres.
In his patented predatory way, Torres spotted a vulnerable Hossa in the neutral zone, just after the elite Slovak forward released the puck, and delivered him straight to Palookaville, launching off his feet and riveting a shoulder check to Hossa’s head.
It was not precisely the same slam Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome put on Boston’s Nathan Horton in last year’s Cup Final, but it was very similar, and a disturbing reminder of the damage such hits deliver. Nearly a year later, and off skates since late January after another concussion, Horton still isn’t right. He is hopeful that he will be able to resume his career, but no one knows for sure that he will.
That’s hockey, eh? Uh, no, not really.
Frankly, the ghoulishness of it all is what the NHL has desperately tried to clean up for the past 20-30 years, attempting to divorce itself from the bucket-of-blood image that was often its accepted art form in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
With much of those antics stripped out, it has become a faster, fiercer, and arguably a more graceful and exciting game in recent years, but one that still has a cadre of players making ugly, injurious hits that generate sensational headlines - like the cowardly act Torres perpetrated on Hossa.
“Really selling the game,’’ Mike Modano, the retired Stars superstar, tweeted sarcastically in the wake of the Torres hit Tuesday night.
Another retired NHLer, Jason York, who these days is a hockey analyst for Rogers Sportsnet, added via Twitter, “Torres hit on Hossa tonight. 1-left feet 2-late 3-headshot 4-repeat offender 5-attempt to injure. No room 4 players like Torres in game.’’
Incredibly, Torres’s hit escaped the eyes and whistles of referees Stephen Walkom and Ian Walsh, who must have been texting or tweeting themselves while the game was going on. That’s what often leads to horrific car crashes.
No doubt duly humiliated, the league let it be known afterward that the guys in stripes were otherwise occupied when Torres caught Hossa in his slaughterhouse. Hey, it happens.
Referee distraction was clearly the case April 5 in Los Angeles when neither ref spotted Sharks forward Ryane Clowe reaching over the boards from the San Jose bench and using his stick to tap the puck and disrupt the rush of Kings forward Jarret Stoll. No call. No follow-up discipline by the league.
It’s now left to the embattled Brendan Shanahan, the league’s dean of discipline, to deal with Torres.
On Wednesday, Torres was suspended indefinitely and delayed his hearing with Shanahan until Friday, which means he will not play in Game 4 Thursday night.
In just over a week of playoffs, Shanahan has suspended seven other players for a total of 16 games, with Asham topping the list at four games. Torres is likely to get at least five.
As an extreme, Shanahan could boot Torres for, say, 25 games, to be served in what remains of the Coyotes’ playoff season or the start of next season.
Shanahan has the chance here to make an example of a dirty, fringe - though not inconsequential - player. He should take the opportunity, run Torres out of the playoffs, state clearly and unequivocally that intent to injure will not be condoned. He should establish 25 games as the baseline penalty for such miscreants.
What we’re witnessing here, yet again, is ongoing disrespect among players, and blatant attempts to injure one another, something that increased dramatically following the 2004-05 lockout. Be it due to rule changes that have helped increase the speed of the game, or simply the erosion of honor and respect among the rank and file, there is an increasing number who continue to blacken both the eyes of other players and the image of the league.
Bad hits, like fighting, have been in the game for ages and likely aren’t going to end here. The league, through a number of rule changes, has diminished the fighting. But the viciousness of the hits, and the damage they inflict, including brain injuries, has increased dramatically.
While it is undeniable that a certain segment of the viewing audience relishes the carnage - the way a fragment of NASCAR fandom delights in deadly pileups - it covers the NHL with a patina of amateurishness and lawlessness that should concern everyone in the game.
Wednesday was another day that league commissioner Gary Bettman said nothing about it all. Wednesday was another day that NHL Players Association boss Donald Fehr said nothing about it all. That is not leadership. That’s not even good baby-sitting.
A good game is being sullied, a game that this season again is chock-full of great plays and drama and real courage. It is being hijacked by a small number of nitwits who have zero impulse control and referees who don’t know the right time to exhale through their shiny whistles. The blame here is mostly on those players, the negligence on the officials.
Much of this, if not all of it, will be tamped down by the Cup Final, partly because of the suspensions but mostly because of exhaustion and injury among the players.
Eventually, random acts of great hockey will prevail, history will be made, the same as every Cup season. The last laugh, we must hope, will be on those left agog, that group of newcomers and born-again Neanderthals who are all excited now over the craziness and blood, left to wonder why on-ice brawls, cheap hits, and brutality came to a halt.
The answer will be that this is not really hockey, not what today’s NHL purports to be, not after decades of cleaning up what was considered the toxic waste dump of pro sports. The NHL has come too far as an industry, as a legitimate sport, to forfeit all of that now to the likes of fringe rascals such as Torres and Asham.
It takes great courage to play in today’s NHL. It takes even more to govern it. It’s time for someone to take the lead here and make the blood go away. For good.
Crime and punishment
With Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs still in progress, eight NHLers have been suspended for a total of 16 games, that number likely to grow Friday when Coyotes forward Rafﬁ Torres has a hearing with league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan.
A brief look at the miscreants’ misdeeds:
* Byron Bitz, Vancouver (Game 1 vs. Kings). The former Boston winger pile-drives Kyle Clifford from behind, knocking him face-ﬁrst into the glass. Outcome: Suspended two games.
* Matt Carkner, Ottawa (Game 2 vs. Rangers). He jumps ex-St. Sebastian’s star Brian Boyle and pummels the giant forward, who opts to not engage in the battle. In Game 1, Boyle had punched Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson in the head. Outcome: Suspended one game.
* Carl Hagelin, New York (Game 2 vs. Senators). He hammers star winger Daniel Alfredsson with an elbow to the head, leaving the Senators icon concussed. Alfredsson suffered a concussion earlier this year, also in a game vs. the Rangers. Outcome: Suspended three games.
* Andrew Shaw, Chicago (Game 2 vs. Coyotes). Charging behind the net, unimpeded, he delivers a blindside shoulder check to Mike Smith’s head as the Phoenix goalie attempts to play the puck, facing the boards. Outcome: Suspended three games.
* James Neal, Pittsburgh (Game 2 vs. Flyers). First he leaves his feet in the neutral zone, delivering a hit to Sean Couturier’s head, then 30 seconds later similarly launches on Claude Giroux in the Philadelphia end, staggering the MVP candidate. Doubleheader of nastiness. Outcome: Suspended one game.
* Arron Asham, Pittsburgh (Game 2 vs. Flyers). Asham, who earlier this season reveled in his beat-down of Capitals forward Jay Beagle, races a number of strides and delivers a two-handed cross-check under Brayden Schenn’s chin. With Schenn down, Asham then punches him in the head. Outcome: Suspended four games.
* Nicklas Backstrom, Washington (Game 3 vs. Bruins). A frustrated Backstrom, with the game over (a 4-3 Boston victory), smacks his stick into Rich Peverley’s face, receiving a match penalty. Outcome: Suspended one game.
* Rafﬁ Torres, Phoenix (Game 3 vs. Blackhawks). He lines up Marian Hossa in the neutral zone, races in, leaves his feet, and delivers a crushing shoulder check to Hossa’s head. Hossa is strapped to a body board and taken to the hospital, examined, and released. No penalty called. Outcome: Suspended indeﬁnitely (including Game 4 Thursday night), pending a disciplinary hearing Friday