The Stanley Cup playoffs might be the finest spectacle in
hockey, and the NHL certainly made a spectacle of itself in this
year's first round. Instead of enjoying the gust of brisk
postseason air that normally refreshes the sport after an
interminable regular season, the NHL spent last week airing its
dirty laundry on the clothesline that Boston Bruins defenseman
Kyle McLaren used to put Montreal Canadiens wing Richard Zednik
in the hospital with a severe concussion.
Some of the hockey was splendid and surprising--the Los Angeles
Kings rallied from a 3-1 series deficit before falling in Game 7
to the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, and
eighth-seeded Montreal dumped No. 1 seed Boston in six games--but
exciting matches were overshadowed by general managers assailing
the officiating in polemics that ranged from the artful (by the
Vancouver Canucks' Brian Burke) to the profane (by the New York
Islanders' Mike Milbury). Too many games were marred by sickening
sights such as Zednik's being strapped to a gurney last Thursday;
the Islanders' Kenny Jonsson's lying unconscious on the ice a day
later after Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Gary Roberts skated 60
feet and drove Jonsson's head into the glass; Islander Michael
Peca's writhing in pain in that same game following Maple Leaf
Darcy Tucker's low blow to Peca's knees; and Islander Eric
Cairns's just missing getting kicked by the Leaf's Shayne Corson
following a brawl two nights later.
Standard playoff intensity veered dangerously close to the
pathological. Montreal coach Michel Therrien made a
throat-slashing gesture at the Bruins' bench (accompanied by a
warning to forwards Joe Thornton and Bill Guerin that they were
"going down") following the Zednik incident, and coaches Andy
Murray of the Kings and Bob Hartley of the Avalanche engaged in a
screaming match with seconds left in Game 6 of their series last
Saturday. The name-calling, ref-bashing and cheap-shotting were a
succession of blows to the NHL's integrity. The league has never
been able to shed its caveman image, and in these playoffs it has
been living down to its reputation.
The day after McLaren's hit on Zednik, commissioner Gary Bettman
publicly warned the Canadiens and Bruins to temper their feud.
Privately he began phoning general managers of teams not involved
in the postseason to solicit opinions on how to stop the flood of
public criticism of the officiating. One suggestion, SI has
learned, was that teams that harshly criticize the refereeing
should forfeit draft choices. "This [public condemnation of
officials] is dragging the league down, and it has to be attended
to," NHL executive vice president Colin Campbell told SI on
Sunday. "The commissioner will address it before the next round."
May 5, 2002
The thread that connects the disparate incidents and the
far-flung first-round series is the players' growing lack of
respect, not only for opponents--"At some point we have to get in
a big room and say, 'Let's stop hurting each other,'" says Kings
defenseman Aaron Miller--but also for coaches, referees and, by
extension, the game. General managers were also showing little
respect. Consider the clever yet damning critique by Burke, who
spent five years as the NHL's director of hockey operations, a
job in which he handed out fines and suspensions and often
defended referees. After Game 4 of the Vancouver-Detroit Red
Wings series, Burke complained about Detroit's stalling on line
changes and executing picks on face-offs and the lengthy
conversations Red Wings players were having with the refs. Burke
reminded reporters, "[Canucks winger] Todd Bertuzzi does not play
for Detroit. It just looks like that because he's wearing two or
three red sweaters all the time."
Working the refs and griping about perceived slights are age-old
tactics, but Burke raised the stakes when he said his
small-market Canadian team had not been given a "level playing
field," implying a bias toward the Red Wings, one of the NHL's
marquee clubs. On Sunday, Burke, whose team was eliminated in six
games, told SI, "I stand by my comments. I made them because I
was sick of watching what I'd been watching."
Detroit shrugged off the complaints. Red Wings forward Brendan
Shanahan said he might even ask the voluble Burke to speak at his
charity dinner, an invitation he couldn't extend to Milbury
unless the affair was for adults only. On April 21, the day after
New York fell behind Toronto 2-0 in the series, Milbury led
reporters into the Islanders' weight room at Nassau Coliseum.
Popping a cassette into a VCR, Milbury proceeded to narrate in
language as blue as the Maple Leafs' road sweaters a stream of
unpenalized Toronto transgressions. The ever blunt Milbury, who
like Burke was fined $5,000 for his outburst, should have saved
some of his A material for use after Game 5. In that match the
Islanders lost their best forward, Peca, for the rest of the
season and their best defenseman, Jonsson, because of cheap shots
that Milbury labeled "thuggery." For the first time in Milbury's
life he may have understated things.
Roberts's bulldogging of Jonsson drew a five-minute charging
penalty but shockingly no game misconduct. Campbell, who
succeeded Burke at the NHL, did not deem the hit worthy of
suspension, saying Jonsson "turned into the play and left himself
exposed." Jonsson sustained his fourth NHL concussion. Another
damaging blow--and one that raised more eyebrows around the league
than the hit on Jonsson--was a hip check to Peca's knees by Tucker
a full second after Peca had passed the puck. Peca sustained a
torn ACL in his left knee. Peca and the excitable Tucker had been
jawing on the ice and through the media. According to Peca,
Tucker had threatened to "kill" him during the series, although
before Game 5 last Friday, Peca dismissed the remarks as comical.
Last Saturday, Tucker said he had simply finished his check.
While Campbell didn't suspend Tucker either, he did ban Corson
for one match for his attempt to injure Cairns in Game 6.
There was no question that Zednik was injured in Montreal last
Thursday as doctors and trainers wheeled him off the ice with
1:17 left in Game 4. Zednik, who had scored both Canadiens goals,
was cutting to the middle when the 6'4", 225-pound McLaren, who
in seven NHL seasons had never been suspended for an illegal hit,
stuck out his left arm as Zednik was skating by, smashing the
Montreal winger in the face. Zednik, four inches shorter and 27
pounds lighter, fell backward, his head striking the ice.
Therrien pointed and bellowed and pantomimed the throat slash. In
a letter that Canadiens general manager Andre Savard presented to
Campbell before McLaren's disciplinary hearing last Saturday,
Savard compared McLaren's clothesline to the vicious elbow that
Toronto's Tie Domi nailed New Jersey's Scott Niedermayer with in
the second round last season, a hit that resulted in an
eight-game suspension. Campbell, noting McLaren's previously
clean record, banned the defenseman only for the remainder of the
series, a total of two games.
The incivility that marred the first round was not restricted to
the ice. During Game 6 in Los Angeles last Saturday, a Kings fan
who goes by the name Dancing Boy and whose antics are featured on
the Staples Center scoreboard, held up an old Kings sweater of
Rob Blake, the former L.A. captain who was traded to Colorado
last season. When Dancing Boy displayed the Kings' logo on the
front, the crowd cheered. When he showed the back with Blake's
name, fans jeered. Dancing Boy concluded the bit by pretending to
vomit on the jersey. In a twisted way, it was the perfect
metaphor for the first round.
"Is it common to ram a guy's head face-first into the glass from
a running start?"
MIKE MILBURY, Islanders general manager
"I don't think [the style of play] could get worse. It can't be
what we're trying to sell."
BRIAN BURKE, Canucks general manager