Why I Hate The NHL

I love hockey. It’s the greatest game in the world, and I say that not just because I’m Canadian, and it’s “our game” (technically, Lacrosse is). It combines the skill of soccer, the speed of basketball, and the violence of football/rugby. The game has a rugged beauty to it; a kind of warrior poetry that creates form out of chaos in moments of artful spontaneity. So, it’s a cruel twist of faith that the greatest game in the world should find itself manifested in the worst league in the world: the NHL.

The NHL is a glorified beer league, chronically mismanaged by its mental-midget of a commissioner, Gary Bettman. How to describe Bettman? A schizophrenic with a Napoleon complex who was dropped on his head as a child, should suffice. Under Bettman, the league has seen two lockouts, and two Canadian teams relocated to the States. Bettman expanded the league beyond its proportions, spreading the talent too thin, resulting in mediocre franchises. More recently, he’s been criticized for his handling of the Phoenix Coyotes and, more importantly, his inability to curb violent hits/headshots – vis-a-vis, his ruling on the Chara/Pacioretty hit.

Before I get into this, I should establish that I am a hardcore Montreal Canadiens fan.  When I saw the hit, my immediate reaction was that Chara meant to push Patches into the stanchion. Now, if you see that and think there was intention, you can understand the outrage of not only Montrealers, but also corporate sponsors such as Air Canada and Via Rail, and even Stephen Harper. At first, I thought it was comparable to the Betruzzi/Moore incident and that Chara should’ve been suspended for the remainder of the season. Now, for those of you not in the know, Montreal v.s. Boston is the most intense rivalry in hockey today (forget the Leafs), and Patches and Chara have developed a bit of a personal feud this season. Moreover, and I don’t think I’m being controversial in asserting this, the Bruins have a reputation for getting goonish when the game has gotten away from them. In this case, the Habs were up 4-0 and there was less than a minute left to the period. However, after seeing the hit a few times, seeing/reading the reaction of players and “experts,” and discussing it with friends and fellow hockey aficionados, cooler heads have prevailed.

That said, I still disagree with the NHL’s decision to forgo any disciplinary action. I think a 5-game suspension and a healthy fine (I don’t know what the maximum is) would’ve sufficed. Of course, everyone will debate length, etc. but it’s something. So why the change of heart? Firstly, I agree that Chara’s track record must be taken into consideration. He’s the biggest man to ever play in the league, but he’s not considered a goon or a dirty player, and has never been suspended. Secondly, I think it’s pointless to talk about intentionality. You can’t put yourself into the mind of another person and understand their subjectivity. Any half-assed reading of Descartes will tell you that. All in all, I’m willing to give Chara the benefit of the doubt.

So why bother with a suspension at all? Don Cherry made a compelling point on HNIC when he said that you either give him 0 games or 20 games. Like I said, if you determine that he meant to hurt Patches, then it’s a vicious hit that merits even a possible life suspension. However, if he didn’t mean it then it’s just an unfortunate accident. However, it doesn’t have to be so either/or. I don’t subscribe to impotent claims like “this is part of the game” etc. Sure, hockey is a violent sport – as I’ve said, it’s part of the reason why I like it – but severe head injuries have become part of the game the way diving is a part of FIFA. But, last I checked, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t considering early retirement because his tear ducts have gone dry. We got Sidney Crosby, the most famous player in the game, out with a concussion, and the list of other superstars who have either had or are currently dealing with concussions is growing: Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, Simon Gagne, Brad Richards, Dan Hamhuis, Jonathan Toews, David Booth, just to name a few. Not to mention the list of early retirements from concussions and the recent study of Bob Probert’s brain. The NHL simply has to step up and make a legit effort to protect their players.

I think Henrik Sedin, reigning league MVP, says it best:

And you tell the guys [Chara] has no history, so the next time he does it he still has no history because he didn’t get suspended. I don’t see the reasoning behind it. Give him at least something to show that’s not acceptable…I’ll tell you this: If you say that you don’t know where things are around the ice, I think you’re not telling the truth…You play the game for 20 years, you know it’s there. It’s got to the point, you have to suspend guys if you hit the head. You have to do it even if guys say they didn’t mean to do it or it’s an accident. You have to start somewhere…I don’t think players know where the limit is. That’s the bottom line. (http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Exoneration+Zdeno+Chara+puzzles+players/4423099/story.html#ixzz1GWTq7gyk)

The inescapable fact is that Chara made an illegal play that resulted in injury. Worse, it resulted in a sever head injury, the exact type of injury the league is supposedly trying to reduce. Did he mean to do it? As I said, that’s irrelevant. Dave Hodge offers an interesting analogy, explaining, if I run you off the road by accident as I’m changing lanes, and you crash into a pole, I’m responsible. If we eliminated suspensions based on the fact that the player “didn’t mean to do it” then we’d never have any suspensions. Others rationalize that if the hit were anywhere else on the ice and away from the stanchion, Patches would’ve been fine. That’s also irrelevant because the hit happened the way it did. It’s not like the stanchion came running out to hit Pacioretty. Furthermore, you got not only Sedin, but other stars like Joe Thornton, dismissing the claim that the game is too fast and players don’t know the layout of the rink.

The NHL has to take a zero tolerance stance on illegal plays that result in head injuries, and that means handing out punishments even in the most ambiguous cases. These are some of the greatest atheletes in the world, and I don’t think it’s outrageous for us to hold them to a higher standard. If you see someone in a vulnerable position, don’t make them pay for it. We’ve been glorifying head-hunters like Scott Stevens for too long and the culture has to change. “Experts” like Don Cherry are talking out of both sides of their mouths when they exclaim players “have lost respect” for the game and each other, but then balk at taking action on incidents like Chara/Pacioretty.

But change comes glacially, and it doesn’t help when Gary Bettman is involved. As I said, Bettman is schizophrenic at best, and this time is no different. Bettman claims he is “extraordinarily comfortable” with the league’s decision not to suspend Chara. Words fail me. Whether or not it was the right call, how can you be even remotely comfortable, let alone “extraordinarily” so, when a 22-year old kid has a sever concussion and a broken neck, and may never play hockey ever again? Not only is it callous and unsympathetic, but it displays an arrogance and disregard for fans of the game and any of the public outcry that has resulted from this. This is just another example of Bettman being confronted with a challenging issue and choosing to stick his head in the sand, hoping it’ll all just go away. What is it going to take to get this guy out of the game?

(click to enlarge)

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on March 13, 2011.

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