Anyone who has spent more than a moment around pro hockey knows there are givens to the game: Players are tough. They play to win. And in addition to the intrinsically beautiful things like skating, passing, speed and high-action plays that lift a fan right off a seat, there are inherent dangers.
One of them, to borrow a line from moviedom, is: There Will be Blood.
The spilling of it always has been; and likely always will be, a part of the game. But when is enough enough? Or in the case of Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik, when is it too much? The lasting and perhaps eternally lingering question in Zednik's case is simple to state, but difficult to answer: Was it right to play the game to its conclusion?
Zednik suffered a horrific, life-threatening injury on Sunday when he was cut by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen, lacerating his carotid artery, the main one that carries blood to the brain. Zednik reflexively grabbed his throat and skated to the bench, into the arms of trainers, teammates and doctors, all of whom played a role in saving his life. The trail of blood that stained the ice stood out like some otherworldly beacon. It was impossible to overlook or, given the depth to which it penetrated the ice, remove. Players had to skate over it. Fans, at least the ones who didn't immediately leave the building, had no choice but to try and look past it. An impossible task for even the most jaded.
Jokinen is on record (he used no uncertain language) that the game should not have continued and that he wanted only to go with his teammate to the hospital. Others on both teams expressed similar sentiments. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff made it clear he would have been fine with a decision to cancel or suspend play, noting that the players weren't particularly interested in resumng, but they had to do it.
The NHL just happened to have Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell on hand to see his son play for the Panthers. He consulted with management from both teams and, it's said, other league officials and even Commissioner Gary Bettman. The consensus was that the game should resume since Zednik was said to be stable en route to the hospital (a better description at the moment would have been that he was being stabilized to the best ability of doctors at the scene). Given that the two teams won't meet again during the regular season, tacking the remaining time on to a future game was not possible. The decision was understandable.
But was it right?
Jokinen had been involved in a traumatic incident not unlike the kind that trained first-responders or police face at the scene of a horrific accident or bloody crime. Even veteran officers who have been hardened by prior experience will tell you there are some things you just aren't prepared to see. In some cases, the impact is so devastating that it can never be forgotten. Imagine what it must have been like for the players, coaches and fans in Buffalo.
Players were fixated on what happened and how it could have just as easily happened to them. Did they benefit from the decision to play on? Where they and the fans harmed by it? No one can say for certain, but nearly 20 years ago in Buffalo, Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk suffered a similar incident and the game went on. Malarchuk still maintains that he came back too soon without enough counseling to come to grips with the incident, and he spoke openly this week about how he still has nightmares in which he sees a giant skate blade rushing toward his neck. He also acknowledges that his career and his life have never been quite the same.
As for the fans, well, one need only look at a photo of their collective faces behind Zednik after his blood started to spurt. The look on one young man's face is beyond description. Malarchuk tells of fans who came up to him years later and said they became physically ill after leaving the arena that night. He says at least three people told him they had relatives who suffered heart problems as a result. I worked in Buffalo during that era and still live there. There isn't a person I know who was in the building that night who doesn't remember every gruesome moment. More than a few have told me that they struggled with going back to Memorial Auditorium for a long time after it happened.
It's not like the NHL has never canceled a game. In 2005, Detroit defenseman Jiri Fischer suffered a seizure during a game at Joe Louis Arena and collapsed. Doctors had to move quickly to save his life. Officials, seeing Fischer's obvious life or death status, canceled the remainder of the game and it was made up at a later time -- but not without some controversy. There were claims that the suspension changed the dynamic of the game and that its resumption at a later date altered the emotion and importance of the contest. The suspension also led to a still unresolved debate as to whether on-ice officials should be forced to play doctor (something they are understandably loathe to do) when determining the severity of an injury and whether to stop the game.
Officials certainly aren't trained to make those kinds of judgments. Common sense argues they did the right thing with Fischer, who couldn't (or shouldn't have) been moved. Did it make a difference that Zednik left the arena and the teams weren't physically impeded from carrying on? Did officials consider that players would be so unfocused by the event that they would be at risk when the game went on? No one ever truly addressed that.
Perhaps they should.
Risks are high whenever players set skates to ice. They are simply incalculable when they are in a situation where their collective minds and hearts are not focused on the matter at hand. Shouldn't that have been a consideration after the Zednik incident? These aren't questions of inconvenience, they are about the physical and mental well-being of the players and even the fans.
History shows that when it comes to the NHL and most other sports leagues, the Fischer incident was the exception. As with Malarchuk, the game went on in 1977 after veteran defenseman Mike Robitaille suffered a fractured vertebrae in his neck (an injury for which he successfully sued the NHL and the Canucks over the way he was removed and later treated). The NHL didn't suspend or cancel the 2004 game in which Steve Moore was ridden to the ice by Todd Bertuzzi and suffered a broken neck. Or the 2000 game in which Marty McSorley clubbed Vancouver's Donald Brashear with his stick, causing him to suffer convulsions on the ice. The list dates back to the time of Ted Green and Eddie Shore, before most fans were even born.
My view? I appreciate the physical and mental toughness of hockey players. Generally, they spill their blood and take their stitches as a matter of pride and I commend them for it. But the Zednik incident was an extraordinary traumatic event and for those reasons alone the game should have been suspended.
That's not an easy thing to do, but look at the alternative: Had Zednik not survived -- and doctors are on record as saying there was a period of time when that was a real possibility -- would you want to have been a part of the decision that allowed the game to go on and players to skate over a dead man's blood?
Games are important to the business of hockey, the amusement and appreciation of fans, and the lifestyle and competitive nature of players. But they are never as important as the physical health and mental well-being of the people who play or watch them. Erring on the side of caution should be the norm not the exception in hockey and all sports.
This one should have been stopped.
Tampa's Odd Man Out
There is still much work to be done in the sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning to a group headed by movie and television producer Oren Koules, including defining who makes up the ownership of OK Hockey and how they intend to finance the venture.
In recent weeks, the deal -- rumored to be worth $200 to $210 million to seller Bill Davidson -- was nearly scuttled by credit problems as the buying group had intended to go through Societe Generale, the French bank that was rocked by a $7 billion trading scandal. Reports say new funding has been found, but it's a given that the seller and the NHL will want to take a hard look at what's in place and who is backing it.
The announcement of the sale, however, is likely a good thing for fans who want to see the franchise keep the big three of Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, whoare considered assets by the buying group. So it's unlikely they will be involved in any trade deadline deals. Whether or not that is good for the long-term future of the Lightning is another question, but it appears it will be decided at a later time.
If there is a trade to be made with the Lightning, look for it to involve Vinny Prospal. The talented but sometimes listless forward incurred the wrath of coach John Tortorella recently (he was moved off the top line for ineffective play) and fired back with a thinly veiled shot after he was restored to the line and had a big night.
Tortorella has endured these shots before and generally sloughs them off as he does the media, but Prospal is coming up on a new contract and reportedly has set his price much higher than the Lightning are prepared to meet. Couple contract with the coaching blast and the clock has started on a Prospal trade watch.
Closed out of the sale is former Columbus Blue Jackets president and general manager Doug MacLean, who was put to the street in an ugly split of partners that was eventually resolved behind Bettman's closed doors.
McLean was recently spotted in his old stomping grounds, Nationwide Arena, taking in a youth hockey game where he was told by an usher to remove his feet from the seat in front of him. That had to be quite a comedown for the usher's former boss.
If the BlueJackets miss the playoffs again this season (and it appears that they will). McLean will get the blame for that as well, but that's GM Scott Howson's problem now. The consensus is that the Jackets will be sellers at the deadline and it's known that Howson has already had meetings with defenseman Adam Foote about waiving his no-trade clause. There hasn't been a definitive decision yet, but Foote is expected to do so as long as he has some say as to where he ends up.
Moving Foote will be just the start of a purge of veterans from a team that hasn't made the postseason since its inception eight seasons ago and is looking to start over again.