Professional hockey players aren't animals. You can eat with them in public restaurants. You can expose them to mixed company. You can send your little boy to their summer hockey camps and expect him to be treated humanely.
But take your son or daughter to a National Hockey League game this season, and at some point your child will see a player—more often, several players—commit a foul that, were he to commit it in the street, would label him a criminal.
Maybe he will ram a stick blade into an opponent's mouth and carve out some teeth. Perhaps he will aim a little lower and spear that fellow in the liver or the kidney. Maybe—and more commonly—he will start a fistfight, many of which begin as bare-knuckle assaults and degenerate into eye-gouging, head-butting, hair-pulling brawls. Your kid is likely to see a potentially crippling cross-check to the back of an unsuspecting player. Or a savage elbow to the bridge of the nose. Or a carefully placed butt-end of the stick to the jaw. Maybe even a broken neck.
There will be something, you can bet on it. It will be grotesque, unsportsmanlike and unrepentantly vicious. And it will probably be on display at the next game you attend, and the next, and the next, because the owners, the officials, the managers, the coaches and the players themselves confuse violence with toughness and will not put an end to the mayhem in their sport.
Brian O'Neill, who is in charge of disciplinary actions, has been one of the busiest men in the NHL this fall, reviewing more films than Siskel and Ebert. As the league's executive vice-president, O'Neill has been meting out suspensions to players who sink to a level of conduct unacceptable even by NHL standards. Already, in 248 games through last weekend, 13 players and two coaches have been suspended. O'Neill admits that in his 12 years as the league's disciplinary boss he has never reviewed so many violent incidents in so short a period of time as he has this season. The films O'Neill has been looking at are not suited for general audiences. They are low-light films—some would say low-life films—of game-related violence, the league at its most animalistic. Some of the films O'Neill has reviewed this fall:
Oct. 23: Fiddler on the Roof of My Mouth, starring Edmonton center Mark Messier, who extracted four teeth from Vancouver's Rich Sutter with the blade of his stick. No penalty was called on the play. "The dentist had to scrape black tape from the stumps left in Sutter's mouth," says Vancouver vice-president Brian Burke. O'Neill called the incident "more of a reflex than a premeditated attempt to injure," and suspended Messier for six games. It was Messier's third suspension in the last five years.
Oct. 27: For Your Eyeballs Only, starring Philadelphia Flyer right wing Rick Tocchet, who during a fight used his thumb to nearly gouge out the left eye of Islander rookie defenseman Dean Chynoweth. O'Neill suspended Tocchet for 10 games for going to "extraordinary means in his attempt to injure," a suspension Tocchet has now served. Chynoweth's vision, meanwhile, remains blurred as a result of the attack; he had missed 14 games through Sunday and is not expected to return to action for another week. Said New York's tough-guy rookie Mick Vukota: "Tocchet's going to be caught with his head down, and he's going to be sent down. Maybe not the first shift. But it's going to be a long year." NHL horror buffs are already looking forward to the sequel, A Nightmare on Broad Street—The Revenge.
Oct. 29: Jaws (in) III (pieces), starring New York Ranger defenseman James Patrick, who in fending off a check by the Flyers' Ron Sutter cross-checked Sutter in the face, breaking his jaw and giving him a concussion. Patrick drew a two-minute penalty on the play and, after a review, was not suspended by O'Neill, who determined that Patrick's cross-check was a reflex and that the injury resulted from Sutter's forward momentum. The ruling infuriated Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke.
Oct. 30: The New York Chain Shaw Massacre, featuring Ranger defenseman David Shaw, who played Paul Bunyan to Mario Lemieux's dramatic debut as a tree. Shaw, after taking a little bump from Pittsburgh's Lemieux, wheeled around and took a woodchopper's swing with his stick at the league's second-best player, barely missing Lemieux's face and striking him full in the chest. Lemieux toppled like a redwood and lay on the ice for several frightening minutes while his teammates convened to try to skewer Shaw. Lemieux missed the rest of the game with a bruised sternum. Shaw was suspended for 12 games by O'Neill—not long enough, apparently, to prevent talk of a sequel. "He's a dead man," said Penguin enforcer Steve Dykstra of Shaw.
Nov. 4: Lethal Weapon, introducing Detroit's Miroslav Frycer, who whacked the Flyers' Murray Craven near the eye with his stick, cutting him, while unsuccessfully trying to stop Craven from scoring the winning goal. O'Neill suspended Frycer for 10 games for using "excessive and careless tactics to check an opponent."
Nov. 16: Liver Let Die, starring Montreal right wing Stèphane Richer, who slashed Islander defenseman Jeff Norton in the midsection while turning the toe of his stick inward like a scythe. Norton lay on the ice for nearly 10 minutes before finally being rolled out on a stretcher. Initial word from the hospital was that Norton had a perforated liver, but the injury was subsequently diagnosed as severely bruised ribs and internal trauma. Norton had missed five games through Sunday. No penalty was called on the play, but O'Neill, who was at the game, suspended Richer for 10 games.
Those were just the biggest hits from the first quarter of the regular season; a number of automatic suspensions have been handed out, too. Edmonton's Jeff Beukeboom and Pittsburgh's Troy Loney were each given 10-game suspensions for leaving the bench to engage in a fight (Edmonton co-coach John Muckler and Pittsburgh coach Gene Ubriaco were also suspended, for five games each); Tom Barrasso of Pittsburgh, Petr Svoboda of Montreal, Mike Bullard of St. Louis and Paul Gillis of Quebec have each sat out one game after receiving their second stick-related major penalties of the season—a new rule, and a good one, which was created to try to get players to keep their sticks down. In the first quarter of the season, all told, the league suspended players and coaches for a total of 89 games. "We can hand out suspensions till doomsday," O'Neill says, "but unless the players react, there's only so much we can do."
One body that is reacting to the increased violence in the league is Lloyd's of London, which underwrites the NHL Players' Association's disability insurance. After reports of the various public threats issued by NHL players reached London, Lloyd's got in touch with Alan Eagleson, the head of the NHLPA. "They asked me, 'Hey, what's going on?' " Eagleson says. "They were reading reports of players saying other players were dead. With the number of incidents that have happened in the last five or six years, we had a lot of trouble renewing our policy in 1986. I didn't want to give them any more ammunition than they've already got. Our contract is up again in 1990."
Eagleson sent word to his membership: Keep your lips buttoned; no more threats. But the violence in the league has already cost the NHLPA dearly in terms of disability coverage. Before 1986, every player in the league was eligible for $175,000 if he suffered a career-ending injury. The best deal Eagleson could make when he negotiated the current contract was disability coverage of $150,000 for players 22-26 years old who had played at least 70 NHL games; $120,000 for 27-year-olds; $90,000 for 28-year-olds; $60,000 for 29-year-olds; and $30,000 for players 30 and over. The premiums, of course, have increased.
Lawlessness has become the rule in the NHL. Penalty minutes per game have risen dramatically in the last 10 years, from 27.5 minutes in the 1977-78 season to an astounding 52.8 per game last season—an increase of a bout 92%.
Small wonder that three-hour games are now the norm. And the reason isn't that the referees are twice as vigilant—if anything, more fouls slip past undetected now. If referees called all the infractions, games might last till dawn. So far this season, penalty minutes per game are down slightly—to 50.6—but fighting is on the rise. In the first 210 games there were 379 fighting penalties, compared with 366 over the same span last year.
"The Number 1 problem of the game is getting the players to keep their sticks down," says Washington general manager David Poile, who admits to being surprised that the new mandatory suspensions for major stick-related penalties have had so little effect. "It takes time. Nothing happens overnight."
League officials complain about the difficulty of trying to break habits that have been ingrained since childhood. Hockey players today must wear full face shields or cages at youth, high school and college levels; they wear them even in the Quebec major junior A league. The argument is that the young players are so protected, they never learn the stick is a dangerous weapon.
But the NHL is deluding itself if it thinks its troubles are confined to sticks. The essential problem is the attitude of malevolence that pervades the modern game. The ice surface has remained the same size, while the players have become bigger, stronger, faster—and more reckless. "Players today seem to have a certain disregard for other players," says Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history and now a television commentator. "When I was at Buffalo, I used to tell our smallest defenseman, Phil Housley, that if these guys tried to run him through the endboards, he had to bring that stick up. It's self-preservation. I often feel that something really bad is going to happen out there."
The NHL has to realize that it cannot crack down on stickwork while continuing to wink at other forms of illegal intimidation in the sport, most notably fighting. "There were always tough guys in our business," says Islander general manager Bill Torrey. "Back when none of the players wore helmets, if you raised your stick around a guy's head, it was war. Guys knew it. There was a line there you didn't want to cross. But it didn't used to be a tactic. When you have somebody on your team whose sole purpose is to punch somebody's lights out, that's a tactic. It's become a bit of a problem."
The solution? The league ought to consider these changes:
•Dress fewer players. Torrey suggests going back to the days when teams were allowed to dress only 16 skaters a game, plus two goalies. That's three lines and three sets of defensemen, plus an extra forward who can be used for penalty killing or to replace an injured player. A team doesn't need more than that for a 60-minute game. The 18 skaters that a coach is allowed to dress today guarantee the presence of specialists who too often are goons whose job it is to fight and create mayhem. "You can have all the laws you want," says Torrey, "but if you want to clean up the streets, you have to get the criminals off. We've got the same problems in our game. We've got to dress fewer of these so-called criminals."
•Automatic ejection from the game of any player who fights. With only 16 skaters, teams could not afford the constant brawling that afflicts the game today. The players themselves would probably support such a fighting ban. "In 1974-75 the Players Association recommended that for one year we try a rule that if you throw a punch, you're out of the game," says Eagleson, who plans to distribute a questionnaire to current players to gauge their attitude on that subject. "The owners dismissed it out of hand. They keep talking about outlets for frustration."
We've heard that one before: Without fighting, the players would resort to using their sticks. That's a great argument, given the harrowing stick fouls of this season, which have been accompanied by an increase in fighting. No, some hockey executives still think fighting promotes the game. "We believe in fighting," said Flyer president Jay Snider last year, speaking of his own organization. "It's an exciting part of the sport, and I don't think the league should sit on the fence about it. Just the threat of a fight can be exciting when the big guys are out there—your tough guys and theirs."
•Forbid teams from replacing suspended players for the duration of the suspension. An 18-skater roster would be reduced to 17. A 16-player roster would be reduced to 15. You don't think this would reduce the number of "unintentional" stick fouls?
Until these measures—or similar ones—are adopted, try recommendation No. 4: Watch basketball. Or if horror films are your taste, try A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. The tickets are cheaper than they are to an NHL game, even if the blood isn't quite as real.