By Stu Hackel
What threatens to become the NHL's Spring of Shame continued on Day 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs when Marian Hossa was stretchered off in the first period of the Coyotes-Blackhawks game on Tuesday night, the result of a clearly illegal but unpenalized hit by multiple offender Raffi Torres. It was the lasting image on another compelling night of playoff hockey and it overshadowed all else, just as each daily episode of brutal play has done.
This has to be viewed as a crisis for the NHL. The league was prepared to make this its greatest playoffs ever, especially in the U.S., with NBC and its family of channels pumping every game of every series into homes for the first time. But what will likely be remembered by its growing audience is not the best hockey of the year, but perhaps the most barbaric. Who knows what that will mean in the long run? More on that later.
First, the Hossa hit, for which Torres has been suspended indefinitely and will have a hearing on Friday. It removed one of the Blackhawks' best players -- their leading scorer this season -- from the game, and perhaps the series, maybe longer. (This video has a minute and a half of commercials which you can FF through; it's the best quality on YouTube.)
Former NHL ref Kerry Fraser expertly delineated all that was wrong with this hit for the TSN audience in this video and called it "a bad miss" by the trail referee. The NHL on TSN panel of Aaron Ward, Marc Crawford and Bob McKenzie discussed it, too (video) as they explained why it was deserving of suspension. The only questions should be whether the league will call this interference for the lateness of the hit, charging on Torres for launching himself into Hossa, or a Rule 48 headshot violation. It doesn't matter. The video shows him doing all three. And, as the TSN panel points out, there was a significant injury on the play. Like it or not, that's a big factor in NHL justice.
Plus Torres' act is an old one. He has an extensive list of priors. A year ago, playing for the Canucks, he got four games for elbowing Edmonton's Jordan Eberle in the head. He came back and narrowly escaped suspension for a headshot on the Hawks' Brent Seabrook, a hit that this year would undoubtably have earned a ban. In fact, Torres was punished again this year: first a measly $2500 fine, despite his repeat offender status, for elbowing Colorado's Jan Hejda in the head, and two days later launching himself into Minnesota's Nate Prosser. That one earned a two-game ban for charging. What will all that mean for Brendan Shanahan when he makes his decision? Well, who knows? By now, whatever confidence most people had in Shanahan for ushering in a new era of player discipline has largely evaporated. He does make really good videos, however.
And who knows where this will go next? A tough stand by the NHL at the outset of the postseason -- whacking Shea Weber for his savage actions toward Henrik Zetterberg -- might have short-circuited the carnage. Since Weber got away with a fine and was allowed to keep playing, things have degenerated. That's not unlike what happened in last year's Cup final when the NHL declined to suspend Vancouver's Alex Burrows for chomping on Patrice Bergeron's finger and matters between the Canucks and Bruins descended into the ugliest final in memory. It was a lesson not learned.
Voices are being raised, voices that say all this madness should be ignored. The loudest, not surprisingly, belongs to CBC's Don Cherry, the hero and leading promoter of chaos in hockey. Cherry was at it again on Monday, providing ammunition for his troops during Coach’s Corner in the first intermission of the Rangers-Senators telecast on CBC (video). It was vintage Cherry, filled with half-truths, distortions and deceptions, all calculated to counteract the rising anger among fans who don't like what they have seen. And you will hear and read those who think like Cherry parrot what he says time and time again. His main points sort of sound sensible — until you really think about them and examine them rationally.
You have to wade through a few minutes of inarticulations in the Monday segment to get to those points, but he first maintains that the only people who are against “the fights and the bangin’ around” are the “reporters who get in free." The coaches like it, he says, the fans like it, the players like it. Well, who likes it and how much can be argued, but as a media member (and I am first of all a fan, one who remembers when Cherry was a career minor leaguer) who has written against the current climate in the playoffs, I think I can speak for myself as well as a number of others when I say what is being objected to is not the fights per se, but the dangerous and illegal play — especially at a time when the NHL has insisted to one and all that it was embarking on a new era of player safety, most significantly when it comes to hits to the head.
That is certainly what I wrote about and others did as well. Sure, fights have resulted from these over-the-top incidents. But a shoulder to the head is not fighting. A head being held and smashed into the glass is not fighting. Crosschecks to the head are not fighting. Jumping a non-combatant is not fighting. Sucker punches are not fighting. Launching yourself into a player along the boards or in open ice is not fighting. That’s what reporters are commenting on. Cherry is busy blaming the messenger, but he’s not even hearing the message correctly — or he’s purposely altering it for his audience.
But because a sizable segment of fans likes the fights, Cherry can't possibly mean that the league should ease up on penalizing headchecks, crosschecks, cheapshots and other forms of dangerous play because fisticuffs will result, can he? Does he want the tail wagging his Bull Terrier? That would be insanity and destructive to pro hockey.
Cherry's second point is the most tired and thoughtless of all: If you don't like hockey the way it is, go watch tennis. (His disciples may substitute all sorts of softer sports in place of tennis.) Like Richard Nixon's supporters in the 1960s and '70s who demanded that millions of protesting citizens love America the way it was or leave it, the folly of Cherry's insistence is that it asserts there is only one way the NHL can or should be -- even though the league knows it has to change and has made efforts, although not always effective ones, to do so. Cherry, of course, has long been a voice against that change. And why not? He’s not about to speak against the kind of hockey that has made him a household name and hugely wealthy man. But his brand of Rock 'em Sock 'em hockey is now 30 years gone. The game has already changed enormously and will continue to do so.
In any case, anyone can still like and admire hard-edged rugged hockey -- even the fighting -- and be no less a fan for opposing the kind of injury-causing thuggery we're now seeing regularly. The nonsensical taunt of "Go watch baseball/tennis/golf/curling/soccer/basketball" is aimed at shrinking the NHL's appeal, not expanding it, and turning it into a cult; the point of that cult being unchecked violence. Ask Keith Primeau or Pat LaFontaine or Marc Savard or countless others whose careers were ended by concussions what they think of that taunt. Ask Marian Hossa.
Cherry’s third point is “this has been going on forever.” He shows footage of the infamous Canadiens-Nordiques 1984 Good Friday brawl and the fight between Stan Jonathan and Pierre Bouchard from 1978 — two vicious incidents that I’m certainly willing to admit have been like those seen in numerous playoff series. I’ve witnessed them in person and on TV. We all have. In any given playoff year, we might have had a few of them, mainly when traditional rivals hooked up or there was a Sutter or a Hunter or Claude Lemieux involved. But this round, even elite players like Sidney Crosby (who we discussed Monday) and Nicklas Backstrom (who we discussed Tuesday) are playing the roles of antagonist and violent offender. What’s going on now seems unprecedented. This sort of out-of-control play, incidents worthy of suspensions, is happening in almost every first round series on every single night. We've already had eight bans totaling 15 games in the first week, Torres not included. Last year, by contrast, three players were suspended for a total of seven games.
I recognize that a good deal of what is now suspendable was not even considered illegal a few years ago. But regardless, the NHL has changed — or it was supposed to have changed — and it’s incumbent upon the players, coaches, officials, league execs, fans and media to change with it. If Cherry is right — and I don’t think he is — only one of those segments wants the NHL to live up to what it has pledged to do.
Further, I don’t believe the frequency of what we are seeing -- the widespread disrespect among the players -- has been going on forever. I know I’m not the only one who recalls it that way. The playoffs used to be about discipline, about not risking selfish penalties (when they are actually called) that put your team at a disadvantage. That no longer seems true. Now it's more about what you can get away with.
Cherry’s final point is that TV ratings are soaring and he wants you to believe that the mayhem in these games is the reason why. There is absolutely zero evidence that all this dangerous play — or even the fights — is the single or even main reason why NBC ratings have climbed 50 percent. I write this with a bit of knowledge about the televised hockey business as a former director of broadcasting for the NHL.
There are all sorts of reasons why ratings are up. One is that NBC is doing a quality telecast, the best ever by a US broadcast or cable network. Another is that every single playoff game is being televised nationally for the first time in the U.S. Another is that all the games belong to one company, and while they are on different channels of the NBC family, they are providing fans with a consistent product one game to the next and one night to the next in places that are easy to find. Another is that NBC is doing lots of promotion — not just on the NHL telecasts, but on non-hockey and even non-sports programming on its various channels.
There are other reasons why fans are tuning in that are probably even more significant than the job NBC is doing. We are seeing amazingly competitive series, with a large number of see-saw scores, comebacks, one-goal and overtime results, some established rivalries and potential upsets that keep fans riveted to the TV just as much, if not more, than fights and headshots. I’m not naive enough to think that those things don’t add to the number of viewers — hey, people slow down to look at car crashes every day. But that’s not why they go out driving, to see a wreck on the highway.
This wreck of a postseason still has a chance to recapture the lustre of the Stanley Cup, but if it continues this way, there will probably be diminishing returns from the increased devastation, not the boost that the NHL is seeking. Yes, it's the hardest championship to win, but that doesn't mean the players have to be maimed before it is awarded.