If hockey had a think-tank institution other than Coach's Corner, this would truly be the question worthy of a Rodin sculpture:
Is the NHL really "dirtier" today than in the past?
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For every Matt Cooke hit on Fedor Tyutin (video) like the one that got Cooke suspended for four games, there are any number of stick-swinging incidents of the past -- like when Boston's Dave Forbes came out of the penalty box in a 1975 game against Minnesota and jabbed the butt end of his stick into the right eye socket of Henry Boucha, essentially robbing him of vision in the eye and soon ending his career.
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For every Islanders-Penguins donnybrook, like the one last week (video) that prompted Pittsburgh's principal owner Mario Lemieux to issue a statement of condemnation and threat to possibly leave the sport altogether, there are untold numbers of bench-clearing brawls from the past. (It was 1970s-era hockey that inspired the movie Slap Shot, let's not forget.)
As longtime Canadian newspaper columnist and author Roy MacGregor pointed out in a brilliant Feb. 14 piece for the Toronto Globe and Mail, dire warnings about what violence would do to the game have continually come from hockey's governors for more than a century. Ontario Hockey Association boss John Ross Robertson, MacGregor pointed out, warned that hockey's violent nature would put a premature end to the sport.
Robertson said that in 1904.
In 1975, then-NHL president Clarence Campbell told Time Magazine, "Without doubt, this has been our worst year ever for sheer violence on the ice." This was the era of the Broad Street Bullies, when the name Dave Schultz was considered a profane term in every hockey rink in North America outside of Philadelphia, and when Bobby Clarke took a two-handed swing and may have broken the ankle of Soviet Union star Valery Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series. (Canada assistant coach John Ferguson, widely cited as the one who urged Clarke do something, wink, wink to slow down Kharlamov, called it just a "little slash across the ankle." In that analogy, the Beatles were just a little band from Liverpool).
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So why, despite the virtual elimination of stick-swinging incidents and the relative rarity of multi-fight situations in recent years, are we still hearing the "It's got to stop or else!" proclamations a la Lemieux?
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There are a few theories:
1. Players are bigger, faster, and inherently more dangerous
This no doubt the correct reason. There isn't one former player from hockey's Original Six or post-expansion era who doesn't readily acknowledge that today's game is much faster than it was in their day. More velocity from a bigger-sized object, for course, means greater impact upon collision.
Peter McNab, who in his role as an analyst for the Colorado Avalanche sometimes stands between the benches as part of today's "inside the glass" broadcast era, says he truly feels that sometimes he is watching a game that is alien to the one his generation played.
"I'm telling you, it's not even close, the speed from when we played," McNab says. "In my day, you could look over your shoulder and see the hit coming and get ready for it. Every night now, I see eight or 10 hits that the receiver never saw coming. The game has gotten so much faster, it's truly mind-boggling."
2. More money
McNab points out that players of his era and earlier usually worked a summer job. That meant players felt more kinship for one another, in the sense of, "Hey, I'm going to play you tough, but I don't want to take food off your table this summer by putting you in the hospital for months."
It might sound implausible, given all the fights and stick-swinging incidents of yore, but many players from older generations point to their low salaries as a reason why lines were rarely crossed when it came to truly dangerous behavior.
Observers often point out in hockey water-cooler discussions that are more detached from one another because of there are more teams, and hence more overall players, so they know each other less well. Also, the money now is so good that players are more afraid of losing their jobs after a year or two that they'll do anything to stay in the league, even if it means delivering dirty, dangerous hits.
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3. Too much media
Unless you caught a game on your local channel -- and watched it all the way, live -- you never saw much hockey in the old days. If you missed the Dave Schultz-Stan Jonathan fight (video) in a Flyers-Bruins game as it happened, you missed it. There was no Hockeyfights.com to access and call up every video of every fight in the league on any given night, all archived for each player who partook in the not-so-sweet-hockey-science.
There were no Around The Horn or PTI-type daily blabfests on cable TV, no indefinite white space of the Internet to fill with endless dissection of the latest hockey dustup du-jour. So all the extra media today means much more amplification of events that wouldn't have even made it onto TV or warranted a paragraph in the newspaper back in the day.
In the U.S. especially, a "fight!" generally still elicits more national media coverage than any other aspect of the game. In the content-hungry, feed-the-beast sweatshops of today's media world, "If it bleeds, it leads" still prevails when it comes to hockey coverage. And that isn't fair to all that's right with today's NHL game.
As long as grown men on skates going 20-30 miles per hour with sticks in their hands are playing for money in a league where fighting is sanctioned, there will be behavior that is labeled as outrageous and actions that are injurious to bodily health.
Just how much worse it can get than it's already been? We're all still wondering about that. And we're likely to keep wondering.