IT'S TIME FOR THE NHL TO STOP THE HOOLIGANISM
This is an article from the March 9, 1981 issue
In purporting to deal with the thuggery rampant in their game, NHL officials in recent days have gone through the usual motions of suspending and fining miscreants and launching investigations. Don't be fooled. It's those same officials who are most to blame for the inexcusable violence. They have tolerated and even promoted the cycle of physical intimidation and retaliation that reduces all too many NHL games to shambles and obscures the talents of stars like Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne, who would rather skate, stickhandle and play good hockey than be a party to Slap Shot-style hooliganism. But Dionne finds this difficult. "You stand in front of the net and a guy will spear you with a stick or punch you in the face," he complains. "And [the referees] don't call it."
The NHL's lack of firm leadership helped bring about the disgraceful spectacle Thursday night at Boston Garden, where a brawl broke out seven seconds into a game between the Bruins and the North Stars and was followed by a dozen other fights, one of which spilled into the runway leading to the Minnesota locker room. The ugly night produced an NHL-record 406 penalty minutes and the ejection of 12 players. Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor later admitted he had ordered his players to "do something" to refute opponents' taunts that his team was "gutless," and he warned that when the two teams play in Minnesota this week, Boston Coach Gerry Cheevers had "better bring a basket to take his head home in."
Reprehensible though Sonmor's words and deeds were, one NHL general manager says, "The league office has stood idly by while other teams have bullied the North Stars and taken endless cheap shots at them. Everybody knows that the North Stars have complained repeatedly to the league, but nothing has ever been done about it. So the North Stars took the law into their own hands, and how can you really blame them?"
The North Stars weren't the only vigilantes in NHL rinks the last two weeks. Montreal Canadien Right Wing Chris Nilan sucker-punched the Washington Capitals' Alan Hangsleben and flung official Paul Flaherty to the ice, later explaining, "I went out there to get somebody." In another game, Washington's Paul Mulvey slammed his stick against the penalty box and had to be restrained from attacking its occupant, Quebec's Kim Clackson. In Los Angeles six players were ejected when fighting got out of hand during a game between the Kings and Flyers. In Vancouver, there was a bench-clearing brawl between the Flyers and the Canucks, and the teams had to be sent to their dressing rooms with 2:26 left in the second period.
The culpability of the NHL brass begins with its preposterous view that "fighting is part of hockey." This policy is reflected both in the toothless penalties the NHL imposes for fighting and in a statement last fall to a Congressional subcommittee investigating sports violence in which NHL President John Ziegler said the league opposed "fighting just for the sake of fighting," but viewed "spontaneous" fighting as a justifiable "outlet for the frustration in hockey."
But fighting as an outlet for frustration has no place in sport. Like hockey, football is an emotional, contact game, but fighting isn't allowed—period. Even in boxing, which is fighting, the emphasis is on the control, not the venting of frustrations. A flustered boxer can always quit as Roberto Duran did, but he isn't permitted to exorcise his demons by hitting his opponent below the belt. There's no reason things should be any different in the NHL. Hockey is a swift, rugged sport in which crisp body checks are an integral part of the action. But the game is at its best only when there's no fighting, a fact borne out by the relatively clean play in amateur hockey and brought home to even the most casual fans by the stirring U.S.-U.S.S.R. showdown at Lake Placid. Significantly, the most gifted NHL players are those who can deal with their frustrations without fighting. These include not only fancy-Dan performers like Dionne, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (page 18) and Guy Lafleur but also such bone-jarring clean checkers as Bob Gainey and Don Marcotte.
Rather than interpret rules to allow players to take out their frustrations by fighting, Ziegler should impose penalties that would rid the NHL of those unable to control themselves. In an open letter to Ziegler at the start of this season (SI, Oct. 13, 1980), Mark Mulvoy, then SI's hockey editor and now assistant managing editor, suggested that fighting could be drastically reduced by imposition of a five-game suspension the first time a player drops his gloves or swings his stick and a 10-game suspension the second time—with the player's place on the roster left vacant. Another reform that could curb hooliganism: make a penalized team play shorthanded for the full term of a penalty, no matter how many goals its opponent scores.
Unfortunately, the NHL may have a motive other than the venting of frustration for condoning fighting and dirty play, a motive more appropriate to roller derby or professional wrestling. Asked last month about the notorious pugnacity of the Philadelphia Flyers, who have led the NHL in penalty minutes nine straight years, Ziegler replied that the Flyers are the NHL's best draw, then added, revealingly, "If the other 20 teams were as successful, I'd be pleased, regardless of how they achieved such success."
There's no doubt that the NHL sees fighting as good for business, pandering as it does to the blood lust of those spectators who happen to be turned on by brawling; but then, the hockey business is hardly booming. This is just one more reason the NHL's ruling hierarchy must do something, once and for all, about gratuitous violence. Failing that, people who love hockey can only pray that the NHL will pass into more capable hands or be supplanted by a rival league that has the real interests of the sport at heart.
Miami has no major league baseball team nor any immediate prospects for obtaining one, but there's nothing to prevent its citizens from claiming a "step-team." So says The Miami Herald, which is holding an election among its readers to choose one of the existing 26 major league franchises as the city's home team by proxy. "The Herald wants a team for South Florida," the newspaper said last week in announcing the contest. "Of course, we can't kidnap one. So, let's do the next-best thing—let's adopt a team."
The Herald pledges to cover the winning team almost as if it were Miami-based—with "extra stories, weekly statistics, more in-depth coverage." The balloting will end March 24, with the winner to be announced just before Opening Day. Sports Editor Edwin Pope predicts that the Yankees, Mets, Phillies. Red Sox and Cubs will be the leading vote-getters, a morning line presumably attributable to the large numbers of Miamians who hail from New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. Pope expresses the hope that the adoption of a team may somehow hasten the day when "a real franchise" settles in Miami, which is the spring-training headquarters of the Baltimore Orioles but has only the Class A Miami Orioles to call its own during the regular season. In the meantime, the Herald suggests that the winner of its "adopt-a-team" poll had better be just that—a winner. It explains: "We will have the only team with an affiliation on a standby basis—if our adopted team louses up, we'll turn it back to the adoption agency."
At its meeting last week in Los Angeles, the International Olympic Committee's executive board added the women's marathon to the program of events for the 1984 Games in L.A. Along with an IOC decision last summer to introduce a women's 3,000-meter run in '84, approval of the marathon, which will be run separately from the men's marathon but over the same course, represents a dramatic departure for the Olympics, which previously had no women's event longer than 1,500 meters.
The decision also amounted to eloquent acknowledgment of the boom in women's marathoning, an activity that was practically nonexistent a decade ago. Since then, 273 women aged 14 to 48 and hailing from 25 countries have run marathons in 2:55 or better. In recent years the world record for the event has dropped precipitously to 2:25:42, set by Grete Waitz of Norway in last year's New York Marathon, a time that would have won every Olympic men's marathon through 1948. At last summer's Avon International Marathon in London, one of two dozen women's distance races annually sponsored by Avon Products Inc., there were 232 entrants hailing from 27 countries and five continents. Those aren't mere statistics; IOC rules require that before a women's event can be included in the Summer Olympics, it must be regularly contested by athletes in at least 25 nations and on two continents.
For all that, the idea of a women's Olympic marathon was resisted by sports authorities in Eastern European countries, who stubbornly cling to the argument, now discredited almost everywhere else, that women are physiologically unsuited for distance running. But the real reason for the Eastern Europeans' opposition may be their fear that because of their traditional neglect of non-Olympic sports, it will take a while before they're able to challenge the U.S. and other Western countries in women's distance events. Significantly, the IOC executive board approved a women's marathon by a vote of 7-1, the lone dissenter being the Soviet Union's Vitaly Smirnov. Though not a member of the board, Arpad Csanadi of Hungary, president of the IOC's program commission, tried to persuade its members that the women's marathon was essentially an American event and was practically unknown in Europe. IOC Executive Director Monique Berlioux of France reminded Csanadi that the world-record holder is Norwegian, adding facetiously that to the best of her knowledge, Norway is a European country.
Among those who lobbied most effectively for last week's action was Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 caused a sensation by running in the Boston Marathon, then a men-only event, despite efforts by a race official, Jock Semple, to shoo her off the course. Now the director of the Avon International Running Circuit, Switzer said she hoped that the women's marathon at the '84 Olympics will be scheduled to take place before the men's—"to give the men a time to shoot for."
Financially hard-pressed college athletic directors tend to be rather unhappy about Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal aid. Until now, Title IX has been interpreted to mean that per-capita expenditures for women's sports programs in schools must be more or less the same as those for men's. But last week, ruling in a case involving a high school golf program in Ann Arbor, a U.S. district judge in Detroit, Charles W. Joiner, held that schools don't have to provide equal funds for men and women when the particular sport receives no direct federal funds—regardless of whether or not the school as a whole gets federal moneys.
Other judges may see things differently, but Joiner's ruling seems to imply that teams participating in intercollegiate and interscholastic athletics are entirely separate entities that don't have much to do with the schools they represent. This notion, carried to its logical conclusion, could make one wonder whether those teams should even exist. For athletic directors who might be tempted to applaud Joiner's decision, that's something to think about.
Our get-well wishes to Deane Beman, commissioner of the PGA tour, who's currently recuperating from surgery for an ailment both painful and embarrassing: tennis elbow.
The Major League Baseball Players Association last week set a May 29 strike deadline in its continuing dispute with the owners over what further restrictions, if any, should be placed on a free agent's ability to negotiate with teams of his choice. For the past five years the association has accepted two limitations on its members' freedom to sell themselves to the highest bidder: 1) that only a player with six or more years of big league experience can peddle himself to other teams, and 2) that a club signing such a free agent normally must compensate the player's former team with an amateur draft choice. But the owners, unable to restrain themselves from bidding player salaries to astronomical levels, have been demanding further concessions that might help them exercise a bit of self-control; they ask that any club signing a "ranking" player be obliged to compensate his former team with an active major-leaguer instead of a draft choice. Realizing that this would make most clubs think twice about signing high-priced free agents, the players association has rejected the proposal.
With the threat of a strike only too real, it is hoped that both sides will be flexible in working out an agreement. However, in arguing for greater limitations on free agency than the admittedly minor ones now in effect, the owners may have difficulty explaining away the fact that most Americans enjoy the right to sell themselves on the job market without any restrictions whatsoever. Thus, management's chief spokesman in the current dispute, Ray Grebey, assumed his position as the owners' director of player relations in 1978 after working for two decades for General Electric Co., which, so far as is known, didn't receive a dime—or an executive to be named later—in compensation for him from Bowie Kuhn's office. Then there's Harry Dalton, one of two management representatives on a player-owner committee that recently tried without success to resolve the dispute. When Dalton, seeking to improve his lot, quit as general manager of the California Angels in 1977 to accept the offer of a similar job with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Brewers weren't required to pay any compensation to the Angels. Asked last week how he could in good conscience try to subject the players to restraints that didn't apply to general managers, Dalton said lamely, "We're talking about two entirely different types of careers." And also, one gathers, about two entirely different sets of standards.
THEY SAID IT
•Donald Davidson, Houston Astro executive, extolling Pitcher Joe Niekro's ability to relax: "It takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes."
•Donna Horton White, after sinking a 25-foot putt in an LPGA tournament in Deerfield Beach, Fla. while seven months pregnant: "That putt was so good I could feel the baby applauding."
•Charlie Waters, Dallas Cowboy safety, after watching a computerized game matching the '71 Cowboys against a mythical team of alltime greats that included Jim Thorpe: "For an 84-year-old Indian, he showed me some moves."