It's been difficult to nail down all the key issues that will dominate when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is renegotiated this summer. The revenue split, of course. It's always money. Olympic participation in Sochi and beyond. Holding on to salary in player swaps.
There'll be plenty to talk about. But if NHL Players' Association boss Donald Fehr has any real interest in his post beyond proving he can outduel Gary Bettman at high noon, he needs to place a very high priority on the issue that the league has all but abdicated.
Eight of Fehr's bosses already have been suspended for dangerous actions that injured or threatened the safety of eight other bosses in just the first week of the playoffs. Last year, the total for the entire postseason was seven -- and even given the heightened competitive drive at this time of year, doesn't that number seem high?
But if the cumulative carnage of the last seven days hadn't convinced Fehr of his obligation, the claiming of yet another victim by serial headhunter Raffi Torres on Tuesday night should do the trick.
This time he targeted Chicago's supremely skilled Marian Hossa. The assault left Hossa motionless on the ice and ultimately required a stretcher and immediate relocation to a nearby hospital.
It was the sort of play that, sadly, has come to define the career of Torres, a player once so highly regarded that he was drafted fifth overall in 2000.
Now? Forget slap shots. Cheap shots are his specialty, as the heads of
The latest blow he inflicted was as nasty as any of those. You can argue it was only borderline late -- and no doubt, his supporters in Phoenix will engage in all sorts of moral relativism as they do just that. What you can't argue is that he traveled a great distance and launched himself off the ice before contact with an opponent who was completely vulnerable.
This wasn't a hockey play, and it wasn't a good hit.
Good hits hurt. Good hits whittle away at an opponent's will to compete.
Good hits don't come with the risk of ending a career.
But that's what might have happened here. And thanks to another missed call (and hasn't this been a miserable week for the NHL's beleaguered officials?), Torres never missed a shift while Hossa -- a dangerous player in the best sense of the word -- was viciously cut from a game Chicago ultimately lost in overtime, 3-2.
It's clear that suspensions and fines have done little to curb Torres' aberrant behavior. Absent the skill that made him a 43-goal scorer in juniors he's now little more than a predator, trading on malevolence and the potential for chaos to maintain his job.
But it's an act that already had worn thin with the Islanders, Oilers, Blue Jackets, Sabres and Canucks. It's hard to imagine he'll remain with the Coyotes after his contract expires next summer unless he manages to follow the path wisely chosen by reformed thugs like Matt Cooke or Colby Armstrong.
He'll certainly have time to consider his options. One never knows what whim will guide NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan (who again was the butt on online japery last night after suspending Pittsburgh's Arron Asham for four games while giving Washington's Nicklas Backstrom one for very similar infractions), but it seems likely Torres will be the ninth player suspended this spring. And given his history, it's unlikely that Phoenix should count on his "services" for the rest of these playoffs, and possibly well beyond.
Of course Torres is just a symptom of the bigger problem, and that's where Fehr comes in.
When the league's own website
It's going to take a different approach.
The PA needs to negotiate for a more active role in the disciplinary process. Not just a seat at the table, but perhaps two on a three-man committee that metes out the sort of justice that leaves no room for interpretation: clean up your act, or shop your limited skills elsewhere.
Maybe it's something bolder, like reducing rosters by one in exchange for other concessions.
But before he even sits down with the league, the players have to be on the same page. They have to truly understand what's at stake. And Fehr is the only one who can get them in a room make that happen.
Tuesday was a night filled with real hockey stories. Another 40-plus-save performance in Detroit from Pekka Rinne as the Predators pushed the Red Wings to the brink of elimination. A remarkable comeback by the Florida Panthers, who fell behind 3-0 barely six minutes into the game, switched goalies, and then stole Game 3 from the Devils in front of a stunned Prudential Center crowd. A remarkable game from future star Oliver Ekman-Larsson and an unimaginably soft goal allowed by Corey Crawford in overtime that tilted the series in Phoenix's favor.
And how many people will be talking those points this morning?
By taking a stand, by representing the true best interests of his constituency, Fehr can change the direction of the game.
Maybe just in time.