NHL's lack of leadership making head shots carnage worse

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Anyone seen Gary Bettman, the Commissioner of the National Hockey League lately?

Normally those two questions don't appear together, but at a time when the league's discipline practices (or lack of same) have come under withering and unprecedented attack, that game was beyond feisty and Bettman has been largely invisible.

Regarding the commissioner, that's not all that unusual. The discipline debate is status quo. Executive Vice President Colin Campbell makes a ruling, half the hockey world cries foul that it's too lenient and the other half rails against the "softening of the VP" and the "pansification" of the game. The debate is largely meaningless in terms of executing change, and the Commissioner remains a respectable distance above the fray.

But now the violence is at unprecedented heights and still the Commissioner is silent. Too bad, because someone should be out front here and at least giving the impression that he's attempting to lead!

Add the dangerous hit that Chicago's Brent Sopel laid on Anaheim's Corey Perry and the obvious retaliation by James Wisniewski on Brent Seabrook -- a blow to the head that appeared to knock his former teammate unconscious even before he fell to the ice -- to the growing pile of videos featuring the "reckless" (NHL's word) hit on Brian Campbell by the now multi-time offender Alex Ovechkin, Matt Cooke's unpunished blindside head shot on Boston's Marc Savard, the Mike Richardshit on David Booth, and Steve Downie's unconscionable and twisted takedown from behind of Sidney Crosby, and its clear that the NHL has a leadership problem that shouldn't start and stop with Colin Campbell.

In truth, one could argue that Campbell is becoming the NHL's fall guy for all of this mayhem, given that the players keep piling up the infractions, the general managers keep ducking any real responsibility, the owners keep hiding behind the Commissioner, and the Commissioner -- in this matter at least -- has been about as visible as his predecessor, John Ziegler, who went missing for days while the league's officials were in revolt and his minions were forced to use substitute referees in a playoff series between Boston and New Jersey.

Suffice to say it was ugly and though Ziegler eventually surfaced and called the entire situation "horrendous," it was the beginning of the end for him. His absence and the bumbling by his underlings were too much even for the see-no-evil owners club. Bettman, who fast became a student of the NHL's inglorious history, should take note of that. His league has a crisis on its collective hands and he appears to be doing nothing about it.

Now, we use the word "appears" because something odd happened in the last 24 hours. First, Campbell gave an interview to Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, confirming rumors that the league was about to "fast track" the recent rule cooked up by the GMs regarding blows to the head and the penalties that could or should be called or at least reviewed by Campbell and his office. He even went so far as to tell Globe reporter Eric Duhatschek that the league was preparing a DVD to show the 30 team administrators and all the players what will and won't be a penalty under the proposed rule change. Campbell also said that if rushing the rule through saved even one player from a concussion, then the fast-tracking effort "would be worth it."

But almost before the ink was dry on that story, Campbell's right hand man, Mike Murphy, was on a Toronto-based radio station saying he didn't think that the "fast tracking" was likely. Later that same day, Campbell appeared on the league's own radio station and "back tracked" down Route 180 so fast that he's fortunate he wasn't injured in a collision with himself. Whether that turn around was his own or imposed from above, well, we'll leave it for you to decide.

"I don't anticipate doing anything with a penalty call on the ice right now," Campbell said with what we swear was the sound of screeching tires in the background. "I think that would be a difficult thing to consistently administer at this point in time.

"That's not our issue," he added. "Our issue probably is making sure that some of the hits we've experienced can be dealt with from the supplemental discipline aspect. That's what we're trying to accomplish at the moment."

Moments don't last very long in the NHL, and our guess is that Campbell's order came from above. He has been reversed before, more than once, without anyone taking credit or blame. When you see words like "right now" and "at this point in time" and "not our issue" and "probably," it's fairly reasonable to assume that he's been told to alter his stance and fast. That happened when he started handing out real punishment in the form of 15-, 20- and 25-game suspensions a few years back and quickly went back to two- to four-gamers and the now absurdly low fines like the one Downie, a repeat offender, got for nearly breaking Crosby's leg in a takedown that Crosby never saw coming.

Of course, this was all going on just hours before the Ducks and the Blackhawks had at each other with the kind of carnage one usually reserves for Aliens vs. Predators. Old time hockey complete with a game-ending brawl, just like old time Tom and Jerry cartoons at their "best"

All of the above makes it easy to imagine that the heavy hand of someone, most likely the Commissioner, is behind all this, but you wouldn't know it for the watching. And that's the real shame here. We won't go so far as to say that Colin Campbell is never at fault in these matters. He has on more than one occasion been caught in a mess of his own making. Still, when it's clear the NHL is crying out for leadership, neither Bettman nor the GMs have thrown him a lifeline. In truth, it's more like they've wrapped him in a chain with a 50-ton anchor attached and taken him out for a boat ride.

The GMs could have helped simply by stating after their meeting earlier this month that they had made progress toward a new head shot rule, but it needed more study and would be ready as soon as all the information was in and understood. They would have been vilified, but so what? Instead, bowing to pressure, mostly from media but also some in their own group, they offered up a poorly worded rule with no teeth and said they wanted it in place for next season. There couldn't have been a man in that room who didn't know the problems that would cause for the remainder of the current season and the playoffs, but what did they care? The rule they crafted was designed to leave the entire mess in Campbell's lap. That's what they always do, and so what? They came out looking like the good guys for finally moving off their own pot. Whatever mess happened afterward, well that was for Campbell to clean up.

The Commissioner did the same. He could have stepped in at most anytime and declared that "for the good of the game" he was enforcing the new rule immediately. He has long claimed that power and used it. He could have overridden Campbell's self-tied Gordian Knot of failed suspensions and the precedent he created for himself by not sitting Richards and Cooke for blows that showed clear intent to injure. He could have, as my colleague Michael Farber points out, acted like Major League Baseball's Bud Selig regarding the home-run rule or relied on his own precedent of the Sean Avery rule.

Instead, Bettman did nothing until perhaps just now, and in what appears to be leadership-by-puppetry we have the perception of him yanking the strings on Campbell while staying miles away from a mess he helped create on this latest sad stage. Viewed from that perspective, Bettman appears far smaller than Ziegler, who simply put himself among the missing when his leadership was needed.

You'd like to think the NHL would have learned from that.

It is not my intention to throw a few "I warned you" logs on what is now a flaming Alexander Ovechkin fire. Suffice to say that he deserved his two-game suspension and maybe a few more -- given that he is a repeat offender -- for pushing Brian Campbell headlong into the boards last Sunday. But there are points to be made:

No. 1 -- Two games deters no player, be it an elite performer like Ovechkin or a member of the near-criminal element like Cooke or Downie. That's on Colin Campbell, Gary Bettman, the owners and the GMS, all of whom continue to tap dance their way through an ever escalating pattern of senseless violence with disciplinary actions that are of little to no consequence. A thumbs-down goes to the players and their association as well.

No. 2 -- This latest mess is at least in part due to Ovechkin's many enablers, including an owner who is on record as saying that Ovechkin needs to "thine own self be true" and if the superstar wants to defy the league and play in the 2014 Olympics in Russia when the NHL has yet to commit to them, he will rent the plane and fly there with Ovechkin. It also applies to a coach who has been ridiculously supportive of indefensible hits, and to others in the organization who have helped create the idea that Ovechkin is above the game and put-upon by media "enemies." This has gone so far that at least one member of a national broadcast team was recently subjected to a tirade by a member of the Caps PR department when the broadcaster was actually singing Ovechkin's praises. Someone in Washington, very much like someone in the Commissioner's office, needs to learn how to lead.

No. 3 -- Ovechkin described his hit on Campbell as "a little push." A little push is what you give a fan trying to take your picture (or so the story goes). What Ovechkin delivered was a push that, coupled with Campbell's momentum and awkward position, appears to have caused a broken collarbone and bruised or broken ribs. If the NHL were truthful about injuries, we wouldn't have to question that, but even if Campbell wasn't injured, Ovechkin had a choice. He chose to hit -- pretty much from behind -- while Campbell was defenseless. Cooke had a choice when he hit Savard. Richards had the same when he hit Booth. One could say the same when Wisniewski hit Seabrook and Downie brought down Crosby. You can make a great case that the NHL has made a mess of things for a long time, but you can also argue that all the recent offenders had a choice and made a poor one.

"To thine own selves be true" -- well, that's what's happened some six times over and no one should be happy about that.