stuhackel
Wednesday October 12th, 2011

Despite the fears of some general managers, hitting is not disappearing from the game as the NHL cracks down on dangerous play. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

By Stu Hackel

While some NHL general managers prefer to anonymously whisper to reporters about their support or lack thereof for the NHL's crackdown on dangerous play -- a crackdown they called for themselves -- one GM at least has the courage to speak publicly: the Blackhawks' Stan Bowman.

“This is what the league has to do and I applaud the steps they’ve taken,” Bowman told Tim Sassone of the suburban Arlington Daily Herald. “At the end of the day the players have to stop doing this to each other. Penalties, and making them severe, it’s the way to go. The NHL should be applauded.

“We want this to be a safe game for the players and they’ve done a tremendous job. I definitely support it. The chances are one of our players will be on either side of it, but that’s how it goes.”

Bravo to Bowman for his strong support of a safer NHL, putting the game's interest above his team's and not buying into the canard that the severe suspensions the league has been handing down so far this season will dilute the game's physical play. He's certainly not alone in his sentiment, but it's refreshing to see a GM who is willing to have his name attached to it in print.

The backlash against the NHL's initiative on dangerous play and Brendan Shanahan's stiff suspensions had the appearence of gaining momentum. On Monday, for example, Cam Cole in The Vancouver Sun worried that, "Despite 31 games in suspensions and over $700,000 in lost salaries, Shanahan so far has made barely a dent in the lack of respect that pervades the game. And he may be running out of time. The players haven't taken the hint yet -- and now their bosses, and their loudest enablers, are trying to hand them a get-out-of-jail-free card, so that life can go on as before."

But while that's how things may appear -- largely because some dissenters have the ear of prominent media types -- the reality is quite likely much different.

A number of GM's spoke to The Calgary Sun's Eric Francis on Saturday and he put the total at a third of the 30 on the Hockey Night in Canada "Hotstove" segment later that day (video). And, as he wrote in his Sunday piece for The Sun, "The large majority of GMs stand by the league’s tougher stance and knew there would be growing pains."

The way things came out on the Satellite Hotstove on Saturday night however, and the way the CBC website portrayed it, it almost seemed as if a GM's coup against the suspensions was in the works (and that's certainly how Don Cherry told the story).

Fellow Hotstove panelist Elliotte Friedman had the same understanding that Francis did about the GMs' collective sentiment. "I think Shanahan actually has a lot of support, probably a lot more than we realize," Friedman said. And in his Tuesday HNIC blog post, he quoted one unnamed GM as saying he liked what Shanahan was doing. "Yes, yes I do," he said. "And I hope he keeps it up."

And Friedman reiterated that sentiment Tuesday night on CBC's nightly news program The National when asked by host Peter Mansbridge during a panel discussion if he was hearing that the GMs wanted the NHL to back off on suspensions. "It's just the opposite," he said. "There are a few people who are a little concerned that it's just too much too fast and there are also a few general managers who have superstar players who've been suspended in the past and they're looking and saying, 'Oh, oh. If he does something again, is he going to get hammered?' But I think...the majority of (GMs) support it, think something needed to be done, and I think the players really like it." (More on this segment below.)

“We wanted the bar raised, not doubled or tripled,” one dissenting GM told Francis on Saturday. That GM added, “Yes, the head shots will stop, but so will hitting.”

Tell that to the Wild's Clayton Stoner, who got rocked by the Senators' Chris Neil last night:

The Other Bowman: With CBC under fire in some quarters as a result of Cherry's rants and his unapologetic attack on Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thompson (Gentlemen, start your lawyers), The National once again supplied some intelligent probing discussion on where the game is with regard to the new standard on head hits and the question of fighting in the NHL.

In addition to Friedman, Mansbridge's panel included Scotty Bowman, Ken Dryden and Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the former Canadian gold medal Olympic star who is now an HNIC commentator. Bowman, the greatest coach in NHL history, acknowledged that, as someone whose playing career was cut short by a head injury, he's very supportive of the NHL's initiative. He also mentioned that the changing nature of the game's physicality has a great deal to do with the current problem and that we don't see great hip checking as we did when he began coaching. Dryden seconded that, noting that the way players hit today is with the upper body, driving into the puck carrier much like a football lineman blocks.

Dryden also brought up the fact that bigger, harder equipment contributes to the problem as he discussed his belief that the game's rules can never keep pace with the game itself. That's been a commond complaint from many observers in recent years, including Cherry.

The panelists also mulled over the future of fighting , with Dryden reiterating the position he staked out in a recent article that the campaign against head injuries has to include fighting's effects on the brain. Campbell-Pascall was concerned that illegal hits to the head will increase if fighting is removed. Bowman came out strongly against staged fights and fighters removing their helmets. Friedman said he thought that staged fights could be banned by the NHL as a first step toward seeing what the impact will be.

There's much more in this valuable discussion by learned people on important topics. The video had been posted and embedded, then deleted in two spots on CBC.ca, but is once again here and also embedded on this page  -- and, assuming is doesn't disappear again, watching it is worth your time.

Remembering and Reviving Lokomotive: While the NHL can and should do more to commemorate the tragic plane crash in Yaroslavl last month that killed the entire KHL Lokomotive team (we've suggested on this blog that all NHL players wear patches with the Loko logo and the league work with the KHL to sell Loko merchandise to NHL fans with the proceeds going to help rebuild the team and support its families), there have been laudable efforts by teams, individuals and the league in that spirit.

When the Penguins and Capitals play tomorrow night in Pittsburgh, both teams will wear jerseys with commemorative Lokomotiv patches and those sweaters will be autographed and then auctioned off at NHL.com. The proceeds will benefit the Loko families who are suffering in the wake of the tragedy. The auction starts when the game does and ends on Oct. 27.

The wives and girlfriends of the Caps and Pens will also be selling remembrance bracelets to benefit the Lokomotiv families as well, and that's been going on throughout the league all season. Katerina Jokinen, the wife of the Flames' Olli, teamed up with Kodette LaBarbera, Jason ’s wife, to launch this fundraising effort for the families affected by the Sept. 7 tragedy. Jokinen was a close friend of Ruslan Salei, who perished in the crash. They had been teammates in Florida and Jokinen attended Salei's memorial service. The two wives designed the bracelets that are being sold at every rink in the NHL this season. You can find out more at LoveForLokomotiv.com.

The Red Wings, who lost three alumni -- former assistant coach Brad McCrimmon (Loko's head coach), defenseman Ruslan Salei and former draft choice Stefan Liv -- are wearing a sleeve patch in the Loko colors of red, white and blue with those men's initials on it. The patch will be worn all season.

And in Yaroslavl, the Lokomotiv junior team in Russia's MHL played its first home games of the season and fans filled the 800-seat Torpedo rink. The Yaroslavl Arena 2000 will not be used until the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period and the junior team had played all its previous games on the road.

Captain Maxim Zyuzyakin admitted before the first home game that the team's focus was especially intense, for fear of letting down the town and the fans. “The people of Yaroslavl experienced this tragedy together,” he said (quoted in a story on IIHF.com by Andy Potts). “Now they are doing everything to create a good, supportive atmosphere. People here lived for their team – it’s a real hockey town and there aren’t many of those in Russia.”

The young Loko players dropped both weekend home games, a shootout loss to Beliye Medvedi and a 2-0 blanking by Omskiye in which Loko took 40 shots that were turned aside by a superior performance by goalie Eduard Reisvikh. Lokomotive's coach, Pyotr Vorobyov, said, “Maybe for some of them the packed stands and the emotions were a bit too much."

Potts wrote "as the MHL schedule brought hockey back to the town, raw emotion was never far from the surface. Around town, the small posters on street lamps and walls drum home the same message: 'Pomnim, Lyubim, Skorbim”' (We remember, We love, We mourn). In the central square, flowers still lie at the base of the Lenin statue, while a team photo bears the message 'Thanks for the game.'"

The second-tier Lokomotiv men's team, which will skate in the VHL, begins play in December and Potts writes that some of the junior players may be called up to that team. They are guaranteed a playoff spot, although no one expects a Hollywood ending. "For Yaroslavl’s hockey fans," Potts writes, "the key thing is having a team back on the ice after the painful events of last month."

Bruins Fans: Versus airs a half hour special tonight at 6:30 ET, prior to their telecast of the B's vs. Carolina featuring a behind-the-scenes look at Boston's  banner raising and championship ring ceremonies last Thursday, as well as the team’s three-day journey leading into opening night. Here's a little video preview.

Blinking Stars: It was strange watching the Coyotes play the Stars on Tuesday night before huge swaths of empty seats -- at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas. At first glance, and we thought the game was in Phoenix on a reverse jersey night. After an opening night crowd of 15,285, only 6,306 showed up for the Stars' second home game, a 2-1 overtime victory. That's the smallest crowd in Dallas Stars history.

Was it because the Texas Rangers were playing an American League Championship Series game that night? Was it the strange 5 PM start time? Was it the combination of the team's ownership uncertainty, the unfamiliar roster with the NHL's lowest payroll, and the Stars not making the playoffs last season?

Whatever the reason, it sure looked weird.

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