Just a few years ago, before the Bruins became relevant again in our town - their season-ticket base floating in the 5,000-6,000 backwater - my good pal Dan Shaughnessy, blunt as always, asked me, “Why do you waste your time covering the Bruins? Nobody cares about hockey.”
At the time, we were in the Fenway Park press box, where I happened to feel I was wasting an otherwise magnificent summer’s day. The tortoise-like pace of baseball and self-absorption of its players (especially those in red socks) long ago diminished my interest.
If you want the joy sucked out of the national pastime, as well as a New England summer, cover the Red Sox for a living. I make this judgment from experience: I made my living as a Red Sox beat reporter for a number of years. Too many, in fact.
But I’ve often reflected on my friend’s question, for many reasons, and did so again this past week with the NHL in the midst of yet another public stoning because of its ever-increasing culture of violence.
I’ve been fairly blunt myself about the game’s disintegration in recent years that is due in large part to the brain injuries that have become a byproduct of the seek-and-destroy mentality among a growing, and virulent, group of players.
Hard not to be blunt when you’ve witnessed first-hand the near-death and permanent paralysis of Normand Leveille, the end of Marc Savard’s career, the neurological abysses entered by the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton. All Bruins. All head injuries.
I watch NHL games nearly every day during the season, be it inside a rink or on TV, and it’s painful to witness what some of the nitwits and miscreants in uniform are doing to what I still consider the best of North America’s four big sports. It’s even more painful to witness the lack of leadership among those charged with - and rewarded handsomely for - being caretakers of the game’s health and the well-being of those who play it.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Players Association executive director Donald Fehr are both very bright men and are both attorneys. Based on their protracted inaction, their disquieting silence around all the violence, it’s clear they either don’t know good hockey from bad hockey, or they are perhaps paralyzed by their own lawyerhood.
I am left to wonder why they don’t say anything, why they lack the sense and conviction to put a halt to the horrifying downward spiral. Perhaps they are surrounded by minions who won’t tell them the truth or shield them from the obvious: A game that allows wanton recklessness ultimately is headed to disaster or irrelevance.
Look how the NFL handled the recent bounty scandal in New Orleans. Commissioner Roger Goodell (also a lawyer) suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for a year (lost salary: $7.5 million), and also sidelined general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant coach Joe Vitt (six games). Goodell fined the team $500,000 and made it forfeit a pair of second-round picks. Whoa dat!
That’s swift, stern action, and though I may be naive (yet again), I believe that’s the kind of guardianship that will deter other NFL clubs from rewarding players for hits that cause injury.
The NBA, by my eye a cartoon of a league these days, was right on the ball in December 1977 when Kermit Washington punched Rudy Tomjanovich in the face. Bench-clearing brawls in the NBA weren’t common back then, but they happened. The Washington punch all but ended the nonsense because the NBA quickly suspended him 60 days, a total of 26 games, and slapped him with a $10,000 fine.
The league’s then-chief counsel, David Stern, later mused that the league “couldn’t allow men that big and that strong to go around throwing punches at each other.”
“There you go,” noted a respected and simmering voice of one NHL club last week. “The NBA ended it right there, like that, one punch and done. No fooling around. The violence stopped right then and there. Our culture of violence has to end. Now.”
For anyone who has paid attention to the NHL these past few years, recent events may be both sad and disturbing, but they are not a surprise. What we’ve had here since the end of the lockout in the summer of 2005 has been a lethal cocktail of mayhem whose ingredients include:
— Rampant disrespect, bordering on dehumanization, among players. Be it because they are fearless, overequipped, or jacked up to earn as much money in as short a time as possible, they increasingly clobber one another like crash dummies.
— Dreadful, if not negligent, leadership by the NHL itself and the NHLPA. By the silence of Messrs. Fehr and Bettman, both sides say they are content to let the game’s septic effluent flow through Brendan Shanahan’s office, to allow the Player Safety & Sewer Dept. to mete out justice. But the office has proven to be inconsistent in its rulings and, worse, unable to defuse the seek-and-destroy culture. The latest example was the repulsive, crushing blow repeat offender Raffi Torres dealt to Marian Hossa’s head Tuesday night. The perfect opportunity for Bettman or Fehr, ideally in tandem, to make a statement, promise a change, simply bellow, “Enough!” Finally, Shanahan spoke with authority Saturday, suspending Torres for 25 games. That doesn’t get Hossa back in uniform, but it at least begins to address some of the aberrant and abhorrent ways of Torres and his ilk.
— Incompetent, stupefying on-ice officiating. Four guys in stripes worked the game that saw Hossa strapped to a spinal board and gurneyed off the ice, but, astonishingly, the hit went unpenalized. Nothing. Granted, NHL referees work the hardest job in pro sports, but as a group these guys get worse, not better. Some of them know the rule book but lack a feel for the game, and the common sense and courage that it requires. Others are just so far over their heads that they should include scuba mask and snorkel as part of their protective headwear. Frightening. These guys need to report to a 30-day boot camp on Aug. 1 and spend the month apprenticing at amateur games, under the on-ice tutelage and mentoring of retired whistle-blowers.
— Shameful marketing, be it engineered by league gurus or incompetent, juvenile team employees. This is especially true in the way many clubs utilize in-house video on the arenas’ giant screens. Too often, to the point of stomach turning, the jumbo boards emphasize gruesome, bloody fights and devastating, oft-debilitating hits.
It is a deliberate glorification of slash and gore. Fans lust for big hits and two-fisted pummelings. Gee, wonder why? I know, I know, it’s not the Original Six anymore. But must it be a choice between Freddy Krueger and “Clockwork Orange”?
I’ll say it again, as I said to Shaughnessy just a few years ago and repeated last June, when even he agreed: The NHL is the greatest show on earth. Played at or near its best, nothing beats it for speed, passion, athleticism, rivalry, courage, action, drama, degree of difficulty.
Nonetheless, it has allowed violence to infect its product and its players, and for violence to become its marketing theme in arenas and on TV.
It can choose to stop. The players can smarten up. Bettman and Fehr can pull their noses out of their bosses’ bank accounts and take a stand, do some leading. The refs can be reeducated or replaced. Someone in the league office, ideally an adult with enough brains and creativity to engage fans from age 8 to 80, can oversee a multifaceted marketing scheme that isn’t photocopied from a single page of the UFC manual.
The NHL is simply too good to surrender, too rich in history, heroics, and playing fabric to be hijacked. Time for the nitwits to go, leaders to lead, refs to get it right, for fans to stop being treated as, and acting like, the sports world’s lowest common denominators.
Clipped Wings face the future
Nashville was the pick here to win the Western Conference, but it was still mildly shocking to see the Predators make the Red Wings the first club ushered out of the postsesaon. Now the question is, how much cosmetic surgery this summer for the aged Winged Wheels? Nicklas Lidstrom, still going strong at almost 42 (cakes are baking for a Saturday celebration), offered his usual answer to the question about retirement: He’ll talk it over with wife Annika in these next few weeks. “I’d be shocked if he retires,” said coach Mike Babcock. “He’s too good to quit.” It would be an equal shock if Babcock were booted after seven seasons and one Cup, but anything is possible. The Wings have begun to take on the appearance of mid ’70s Cadillacs in a league that has gone to zippy imports.
Alexander was great
Still somewhat uncomfortable with how the unpredictable Alexander Radulov reappeared late to the party in Nashville - even though his return from Russia was legal - but the 25-year-old winger made clear in Round 1 that he can be a true difference-maker this spring. He’s ornery and skilled. “Big and smelly, and I mean that only in the kindest way,” said an opposing general manager. In Friday night’s 2-1 clincher in Tune Town, Radulov was in on both goals (1-1-2) and finished Round 1 as the club’s top offensive contributor (1-4-5 with 10 shots in five games). With a long-term deal in hand with Nashville, he bolted back to Russia after the 2007-08 NHL season, then returned here in March to play the final nine regular-season games (3-4-7). Series-clinching goal Friday night for Nashville: Detroit’s own David Legwand.
Senators no pushovers
A lot of Bruins fans figured the locals would breeze if Ottawa had been the Black-and-Gold’s Round 1 opponent. But the Senators, even with Daniel Alfredsson concussed (compliments of an ugly hit by Ranger rookie Carl Hagelin), look fully capable of knocking off the top-seeded Blueshirts. It was a strong second-half surge by the Senators, even if they did stumble some at the end. “Half the team was playing one way,” explained first-year coach Paul MacLean in a CBC interview, “and half the team was playing another. We were going nowhere doing that.” Meanwhile, some very interesting help for the Senators is due to arrive Sunday from Sweden. Jakob Silfverberg, their second pick (39th overall) in the 2009 draft, was MVP of the Swedish Elite League this year and chose to join the Senators last week rather than accept an invite to the World Championship. The 6-foot-2-inch winger finished with 54 points in 40 games with Brynas, the league champion, after collecting 34 points last year. It’s asking a lot at this time of year, but he might be ready to plug in and go.
No laughing matter
Funny guy, Ilya Bryzgalov, as we all learned during HBO’s run-up to this year’s Winter Classic. But he has looked like a stunt clown at times in that Flyer net during their first-round series with the Penguins. He gave up five goals in short order (18 shots) in Game 4 (10-3 loss) before he was pulled by coach Peter Laviolette, who then watched backup Sergei Bobrovsky give up five more, also on 18 shots. In his defense, Bryzgalov did suffer a chip fracture in his right foot late in the season and now may be fighting a hip injury, too.
The ABCs of enforcement
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk laid it on the line last week, noting to the Ottawa Sun that it’s time for ownership to take action against the likes of Torres and others whose mission is to inflict injury. “We need to stop the talk,” said Melnyk, emphasizing the importance of running repeat offenders off the ice. “It’s the equivalent of getting a junkyard car driver in the Daytona 500. Why are we putting a reckless driver in an elite group?” Melnyk’s proposal: Place all of the game’s players in tiers, designating them A, B, and C level performers. For instance, Torres would be a C player, and Hossa an A player. By Melnyk’s eye, if an A player were the victim of a blatant attack (see: Torres on Hossa), then the victim’s team could designate an A player from the opposing team to serve the same suspension as his teammate. In other words, Phoenix will take that Torres-for-Hossa swap any day of the week. Nothing to lose in that exchange. “I hope it never gets to the point,” mused Melnyk, “that we need to have someone carried off in a wooden box to get the message through there’s no room in hockey for some of the head shots that have been doled out by some of these players.”
Somethin’ happenin’ here
Season ticket-holder Neil Young was in house at the Tank in San Jose for Game 4, Sharks vs. Blues, last week, and he was wearing a Buffalo Springfield jacket. The Sharks dropped both games in their home rink and fell behind in the series, 3-1, to the Blues, who last won a playoff series in 2002.
Loyal reader Allan Steele suggests a Joe Thornton-for-Roberto Luongo trade this summer as a means to give each a fresh start. That’s precisely the deal that came to mind here when Jumbo was still Bruins property and Luongo toiled for the Panthers, then coached by Mike Keenan. Both went their separate ways, via trade, and both are still awaiting their first Cups . . . Count St. Louis coach/revivalist Ken Hitchcock as one of those amazed that the Blues could go into the Tank and snatch a pair from the Sharks. “This has been such a graveyard,” said Hitch . . . Regrets here for misidentifying last week the author of a piece about Bruins winger Shawn Thornton in which he offered his thoughts on how a gay player might be received in the Bruins locker room. It was written by David Zimmerman, publisher of Spirit Boston Magazine . . . You’ll be hearing and seeing a lot of the group Nickelback as the playoffs progress. The NHL announced last week that the group will headline its awards show in Las Vegas June 20. What, no Drake? . . . Headed into weekend play, the number of hits per game was up some 50 percent (68 vs. 45) over the regular-season average. Leading the charts as of Saturday morning: Bryan Bickell, Chicago, 24; Shane Doan, Phoenix, 24; Alex Ovechkin, Washington, 21; Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia, 21. Among players in the top 10 for hits in the playoffs, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook led the way in shots on net (15) . . . An irate Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville labeled the refereeing in the Torres-Hossa game “a disgrace.” Absolutely true. And for his truth, Coach Q was fined $10,000 by the league. Clearly a league that values opinion.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.