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NHL grapples with retaliation dilemma

Key question: Who is the most effective at policing the modern game on the ice -- the NHL or the players? (Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE)

By Stu Hackel

In the aftermath of the Milan Lucic-Ryan Miller incident last Saturday, the Buffalo Sabres have come under heavy criticism for not pushing back against the Boston Bruins, either by challenging Lucic or by running goaltender Tim Thomas in retaliation. We showed video earlier this week of a 1987 game between Buffalo and Detroit that featured goalie-running and line brawls, but those sights are rare these days.

Should the players take matters into their own hands more than they do now?

It's a huge question for the NHL. Officially, the league (meaning the on-ice officials and the system of supplementary discipline) has always been charged with enforcing the rules and punishing players who cross the line. Historically, however, the NHL always left room for the players to police the game on their own, which is something many fans like and a segment of players prefer.

That approach is discouraged now, not only because it can lead to mayhem, but because the league is more active and better equipped than ever before to fulfill that function. With two referees on the ice and an active department in the league office dedicated to reviewing on-ice incidents, not very much escapes notice.

Much of the league's effort is perceived by some as an effort to reduce, if not eliminate, fighting although that has never been stated as a goal by the league, the owners or the general managers, who have always insisted that fighting has an important place in the game. And the rationale they use is that fighting is a needed safety valve that prevents the potential of more violent sorts of behavior, like stick fouls, head shots and other nefarious tactics that no one likes.

Still, there is a distinct feeling in some quarters that the self-policing element is drifting from view. Those sentiments were expressed by new Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Mark Howe last Saturday night on CBC's Inside Hockey pregame show (video). Speaking on a panel with fellow inductees Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour and Ed Belfour, Howe said he liked his era better mostly because the players policed the game.

"There's so much onus placed on the officials right now," Howe explained. "I don't mind the fighting in the game. I know they're trying to take a lot of it out. The game in the old days got rid of the pretenders. And the guys that do the whackin' and the hackin', the guys who are chirpin' back, that stuff got eliminated years ago. And if someone was taking a shot at your best player, somebody got rid of that thing right away. And the reason there's a lot more injuries now, the guys are bigger, they're stronger, they're better fit overall, but you can just take runs at people left and right and they're coming at full speed. In the old days, we eliminated that from the game."

The other panelists didn't exactly endorse Howe's view. But someone who did was CBC's Elliotte Friedman, who spoke quite passionately on Montreal's TSN 990 radio's Melnick in the Afternoon program earlier this week. Friedman elaborated on his latest, and always very interesting, 30 Thoughts blog post, saying that the Sabres' lack of retaliation against Boston created a situation that has thrown the league out of balance.

"Here's the thing," Friedman maintained. "The Bruins are what they are. OK? Everybody knows it. They push the line, they kick through the line, they say, 'We're going to do whatever we can to win, and wait and see if we get penalized for it.' And it won them a Stanley Cup last year. Now, they were down 2-0 to Vancouver, they decided they were going to become a mean team, and they won four out of five and won the Cup.

"Clearly, someone has to push back against them....Nobody on the ice (in the Sabres-Bruins game) did a thing. Not then, and not for the rest of the game. I find that unbelievable...Everybody now is saying, 'We're going to wait for the referees and the league to handle it.' And I think that's just wrong. You have got to stand up for yourself and the only way the Boston Bruins are going to stop doing that is if you stand up for yourself."

Friedman could be right about teams being less active in the policing role, but it's less certain if that element is as crucial as he or Howe believe it to be. As both Nieuwendyk and Gilmour attested, the game is all about speed now, and less about physicality. But for speed to be the dominant element in the game, which seems to be what the NHL wants, the role of the league in officiating and disciplining becomes more crucial than ever before.

In both Howe's and Friedman's view, it's too hard a job for the league to do effectively, so the self-policing mechanism must get ratcheted up. Friedman said, "The league can't deal with everything."

For his part, Miller had a response for criticism of his teammates on Tuesday, saying the Sabres' character should not be defined by one incident. "I think it’s unfair to the guys in here," he told Buffalo reporters. "You guys aren’t in the locker room. You guys don’t know what’s going on. We allow you in here for these interviews, and we don’t conduct ourselves the same way as we do with each other.

"I appreciate that [my teammates] wanted to do more. But I mean, what can you really do? You’re going to get a suspension yourself? Lucic is a tough guy. What are you going to do? Hack him? Spear him? Cheap-shot him? Then you’re not better than he is."

This is a major fault line we've seen time and again among hockey people and media analysts the last couple of years as rules for greater safety are proposed and implemented. It's a discussion that will no doubt continue to frame the issues surrounding the game's progress for some time.

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