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Ugly hat trick for NHL as mayhem spins out of control

Beginning with a mean-spirited game in Pittsburgh between the Penguins and Islanders on Feb. 2 that included a dodgy hit and a goalie fight, and concluding with the pre-Valentine Day's Massacre rematch between the two teams on Long Island, the NHL has descended into the gutter -- a refuge of rancor, vitriol and vengeance. In the 18 years of Commissioner Gary Bettman's stewardship, a period in which when the league has shed its mom-and-pop veneer and become a growing part of the sports entertainment industry, this is the first time that the NHL has seemed circa-1970s small.

There have, of course, been incidents during the Bettman years that obliged the generic sports fan to cast a rheumy gaze at the league -- Marty McSorley stalking Donald Brashear (video) and Todd Bertuzzi assaulting Steve Moore (video) to name two -- but, after a few reflexive rounds of a national tsk-tsking, these events came to be viewed almost as one-offs, spasmodic eruptions of hockey's basest instincts. They were horrific events, but they were not necessarily defining ones for a league that was trying to honor the old trappings while modernizing its ways.

But now a disturbing pattern has emerged, and the NHL can't seem to get out of its own way.

Since Feb. 2, the NHL has seen a) two goalie fights; b) three bouts in the first four minutes of a Stars-Bruins game that also included a vicious blindside hit; c) unbridled brawling between two Original 6 rivals, the Bruins and Canadiens, that included the son of the NHL's dean of discipline as a major combatant flailing away as his elbow pad flapped; d) a match between the Penguins and Islanders featuring 346 penalty minutes that would have been better handled by a SWAT team than two referees and two linesmen; and e) one of the biggest names of the past quarter century, Penguins co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, decrying the violence directed at his team, a plaint that was greeted with widespread, if not universal, derision because his team leads the league in fighting and employs arguably the most destructive player in the NHL.

The film classic Slap Shot is starting to look like a documentary.

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Now there are antecedents for every outbreak of the recent lunacy. There are rationalizations. There might even be reasons that go beyond naked revenge and have something to do with the sport. And in some cases, there might even be a salutary effect on teams as the battling fosters a degree of closeness, a brothers-in-arms kind of deal.

But woven together, the brawling, the tepid punishments for certain kind of hits, and the self-pitying if not baseless complaints by Lemieux make the sport look petty and fractious at precisely the time of year -- post-Super Bowl and pre-NCAA basketball tournament -- when the league has a relatively short window in which it can grab a disproportionate share of national attention.

Selecting Feb. 2 as the start of the NHL's descent into madness is, in a sense, arbitrary. (You can make a compelling argument that NHL vice president Colin Campbell, because he did not use "intent to injure" and suspend the Penguins' Matt Cooke for his predatory hit that concussed Boston's Marc Savard last March, laid the foundation for much of what has followed. As always, antecedents.) But the mood was set when the Penguins' Max Talbot laid out Islanders winger Blake Comeau with a blind shoulder-to-shoulder hit in the first period on Feb. 2, and when New York goalie Rick DiPietro went high with his blocker on Cooke as he buzzed the crease in the dying seconds of the game. Pittsburgh goalie Johnson subsequently skated some 180 feet to engage DiPietro, and the stakes were raised significantly. Johnson's left hand broke DiPietro's face and elicited silly grins on the admiring Penguins bench.

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The following night in Boston, the Stars and the Bruins engaged in three fights mere seconds after the opening faceoff, which sort of undercuts the argument that hockey fights are essentially spontaneous outbursts that reflect what has occurred in a game, don't you think? Of course, these fights actually did reflect what happened in a game -- one that occurred in November 2008. The Stars jumped the rails that night in a 5-1 loss and Mike Modano later said he found it "idiotic and stupid ... one of the most embarrassing things I've seen." If Lemieux seemed to echo Modano's long-ago comments on Sunday, remember that Modano was throwing a probing jab at his own team, not exonerating it.

The most egregious act occurred midway through the second period when Boston's Daniel Paillé became a poster boy for Rule 48 with a blindside hit to the head of Dallas forward Raymond Sawada, earning a match penalty and a relatively tepid suspension of four games from the NHL. (The rule was instituted this season in an effort to eliminate the kind of hits that Cooke planted on Savard.)

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"The problem," said Mike Keane, who played 16 NHL seasons, "is (chief disciplinarian) Colin Campbell and the NHL aren't suspending players for a long enough period to hurt them. It's always two, three, four games. They should impose penalties that start with five or ten games. They show a lot of old-school thinking. Their first reaction seems to be that a guy shouldn't have put himself in a position (to be injured)."

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After muddling along three years without a goalie fight, the NHL had its second within a week on Feb. 9. Not quite two weeks earlier, the Bruins' Tim Thomas and Montreal's Carey Price were All-Star game teammates, sitting side by side and chatting like old pals during the player draft. Now, two Vezina Trophy candidates were attempting to fight, even if it looked more like frat house wrestling.

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Price never threw a cocked right after Thomas fell, an act that, by the low standards of the evening, seemed worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. There were 187 minutes of penalties and 12 fighting majors. At one point there were six Bruins and five Canadiens in the penalty box; the scene looked like a college prank from the 1950s when students stuffed themselves into Volkswagens.

The final minute featured Bruin Gregory Campbell's flapping elbow pad as he beat a tattoo on Canadien Tom Pyatt's face as Boston's Johnny Boychuk continuing to hammer away at an overmatched Jaroslav Spacek of Montreal.

"Guys weren't going to take it any more," Bruins rookie Brad Marchand said that night, an apparent reference to Max Pacioretty's schoolboy shove of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara after a Montreal overtime victory in January. Or maybe Marchand meant P.K. Subban's alleged slew foot of Campbell. Of course, he could have been talking about three straight Canadiens wins over the Bruins before this match. The bullying appeared more tactical than truly vengeful -- the Bruins are the bigger and more physical team than swifter and softer Montreal -- but the end-game punch-ups seemed like gratuitous exclamation points on a thumping 8-6 win.

But all of this was a mere warmup act for the Islanders-Penguins game last Friday. That one was near mayhem. Matt Martin of the Isles sucker-punched Talbot at center ice, faintly echoing Bertuzzi's attack on Moore. Minor league call-up Micheal Haley later fought Talbot and then skated the length of the ice to engage Johnson, the goalie. New York's Trevor Gillies went upside the head on the Penguins' Eric Tangradi with an elbow, and then punched the helpless player several times when he was down.

The next day, Colin Campbell clearly identified the aggrieved party: the Penguins. Although Pittsburgh enforcer Eric Godard received a mandatory 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight -- he bolted to try to protect Johnson -- his coach, Dan Bylsma, escaped punishment. Meanwhile Gillies earned a nine-game suspension, Martin four, and the Islanders were fined $100,000. Somehow Haley skated, but NHL discipline has seen worse days.

Said Campbell, "The actions by the Islanders' Gillies and Martin were deliberate attempts to injure by delivering blows to the head of players who were unsuspecting and unable to defend themselves. The message should be clear to all players: targeting the head of an opponent by whatever means will be dealt with by suspension ...The Islanders also must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players."

The message seemed forceful enough, but Lemieux bridled. In a statement released through the Penguins on Sunday, Lemieux said, "... what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn't hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that. 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." He added that if the game on Long Island "reflect(s) the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it."

The general response in the hockey world was incredulity, the message lost in Lemieux's melodrama. Ex-Vancouver captain Trevor Linden, a former president of the NHLPA, "What do you want (the NHL) to do? Give guys life (out of the league)?"

At times, Lemieux's statement verged on the absurd -- now that he can splash in the revenue streams of Pittsburgh's lavish new arena, it's dubious that he would be in a hurry to share his stake in the club -- and self-serving. In 1992, when Lemieux called the NHL a "garage league," there was a similar whiff of self-pity. (If we cut out clutching and grabbing, then my job gets easier.) But Lemieux wasn't wrong when he spoke out almost two decades ago -- the post-lockout rule standards validated his view -- and he is not wrong now. The messenger is an inviting target -- unfortunately his statement was a one-and-done and not the start of a crusade; he is declining interviews -- but that doesn't invalidate the core of the message.

Travesty. Sideshow. Embarrassing.

A neat hat trick, eh?