Monday February 14th, 2011

By Stu Hackel

The NHL has been on the edge and even gone over the top too often this season. On Friday night, for one game at least, it spun out of control. And the league's subsequent disciplinary measures don't go far enough to discourage players and teams from doing it again.

The Penguins-Islanders game -- featuring 15 fighting majors, 14 game misconducts and 346 minutes in penalties -- was a post-lockout low point for the league. Even Mike Milbury thought the boys went too far (video). Mike Milbury! But it was preceded by not merely a few weeks of intensified brawling, but also season-long problems with headshots, cheapshots, sucker punches, boarding, knee-on-knee incidents and more.

Nasty stuff apparently gets worse at this time of year, as Pierre McGuire mentioned this morning on Ottawa radio Team 1200. He asked the NHL to run some numbers for him to confirm his suspicion that bad behavior on the ice peaks between New Year's Day and mid-February. He was right: league figures show that during that time period, fighting has averaged a 30 percent spike in each of the last five years since the end of lockout. McGuire believes it happens because the standings are tight and points are at a premium, which leads to greater intensity. He also notes that injuries accumulate at this time of year with fringe players and minor leaguers seeing more action. Naturally, they want to leave a lasting impression with their bosses.

But there's more to consider than just this six-week period. So far in 2010-11, players have been suspended for a total of 88 regular-season games due to 27 different incidents -- surpassing last year's total of 78 games and 29 incidents. Yes, the rise is due in part to more vigilance about headshots, but it's offset by the incidents where players were not suspended when they should have been, such Matt Cooke going knee-on-knee with Alex Ovechkin.

It's probably no coincidence that when Cooke got away with that one, he felt emboldened enough to dispense this illegal hit on Fydor Tyutin in his very next game, for which he got a four-game ban as a result of his charging major penalty.

And that's the thing about NHL discipline. It is not strong enough to send the message it should. It is not a sufficient deterrent and it is a problem with a shared cause. That was, in some sense, Mario Lemiuex's main point when he spoke out against the league's underwhelming response to Friday's game. By now, you've likely read (or at least heard about) Lemieux's reaction to the game. He said it "wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that."

He continued, “The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."

And Lemieux concluded with, “If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

Mario has been both praised and harshly criticized for this statement. The Bruins' Mark Recchi, a respected NHL veteran, told Comcast Sportsnet New England, "Good for [Lemieux]. I'm glad he said it because the [NHL sanctions] weren't strong enough. Not even close."

Lemieux's critics cry hypocrisy, pointing out that his team leads the NHL in PiMs and fighting majors, and he employs the thuggish Cooke. They say Lemieux does not bother to attend Board of Governors meetings where he could help enact change. And that's certainly true.

But it does not mean that Lemieux was wrong about the NHL's actions against both teams, his own included.

There's no argument here on the automatic 10-game suspension to Eric Godard for leaving the bench to fight. Nor Matt Martin's four-game suspension for replicating a Todd Bertuzzi-style attack from behind on Maxime Talbot, other than maybe it could have been longer. Nor Trevor Gillies' nine-game suspension for his concussion-producing headshot and punches on Eric Tangradi. That's how long a headshot suspension should be. Gillies also should have gotten a few extra games for his disgraceful taunting of Tangradi while standing in the dressingroom runway.

But the fact remains that the Islanders' fine of $100,000 is insufficient for what was clearly a premeditated attitude, a predisposition, if not a plan, to turn the game into a circus by reacting to previous incidents where the they felt the NHL has not protected them against questionable plays by opponents. The Isles had called up AHLer Michael Haley (whose contribution to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers' efforts include 14 points, a minus-14 rating and 144 PIMs in 50 games) for Friday's game and he played all of 5:31 before he got tossed in the third period after piling up 39 minutes in penalties. For that alone, GM Garth Snow should have been punished.

And the fact remains that both coaches got away with no fines or suspensions although each failed to control his players. (It doesn't matter that Dan Bylsma told his players not to leave the bench to fight -- they did and it's his responsibility to ensure that they don't; if he doesn't know to stand right behind Godard in this situation and restrain him if necessary, then he doesn't know his personnel, which he certainly does).

Goddard has a rationalization: "Ten games is pretty long, especially when we're in a tough spot with a lot of guys out. Yes, I regret it, but I'm going to try and defend my teammates. So, I'm kind of torn with that."

The Islanders have a rationalization, too. They think if the league doesn’t do enough to protect them, their players can take matters into the own hands. They wanted to demonstrate that they can't be pushed around and what ensued was all in the cause of building team unity.

Rationalizations abound. Every player who delivers a headshot has a rationalization. In fact, they have their excuses ready before they crank an opponent in the head. They talk about the fact that if they don't finish their checks, their coaches will staple them to the bench or send them back to the American League, and there's much truth to that.

Some of these rationalizations are what make Colin Campbell's and Mike Murphy's job in Hockey Operations difficult. Much of what has been ingrained in the NHL and in players over time is hard to punish. And rationalizations are also designed to influence decisions by the referees or the league and tell the fans who follow a team that their favorites did nothing wrong.

What the league does in these matters is of critical importance, particularly in demanding the highest level of understanding of the game, where it is, where it should go and where it shouldn't go. The league's role in hockey matters is to rise above the rationalizations, excuses and partisanship and monitor the competition so that every transgression is fairly addressed in a manner that preserves the game's integrity. It must discourage the monkey-see, monkey-do attitude that can infect the sport at all levels, from the NHL right down to youth hockey.

There was a time when stick-swinging was epidemic in the game and a serious danger to player safety. Stiff penalties, fines and suspensions ended that danger, and that is what it takes to eliminate unsafe situations in the NHL. The league's task today -- in addition to creating as safe an environment as possible on the ice given the game's physical nature -- is to be sure that the game doesn't degenerate to the point where teams start to believe they they can brawl their way to victory, or load up on goons in an effort to fill the seats.


Because this is an important moment for the NHL. The product has improved, the business is growing and on the verge of a new, perhaps more lucrative TV deal, possibly with NBC. Those  who are old enough to remember the '70s know the NHL lost its TV contract with NBC in part because the out-of-control league couldn't keep it's game short enough with all the penalties. NBC's affiliates revolted when their local programming was delayed, and some advertisers didn't want to be connected with the unseemly product. Fortunately, what we saw on Friday is in part an aberration. That sort of game happened dozens of times a season in the '70s and fighting isn't even at 1980s levels. NHL figures show that fighting is down by 50 percent from the days of the Original 21. Still, the potential for mayhem has to be a concern.

Or maybe not.

Maybe the NHL's leaders see their business growth as confirmation that they're doing all the right things and would not be uncomfortable if their league ends up occupying a place somewhere between the other pro leagues on one hand and MMA on the other. A portion of the fan base doesn't seem terribly turned off by games like Friday's. In fact, they love it. Maybe they'd love even more of it.

Maybe it comes down to a choice for the NHL. Before Gary Bettman took over as commissioner, the league's attitude was, as often stated by Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Or maybe they'll heed the words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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