Two days after watching his best player and the NHL’s top rookie get injured in a takedown that had absolutely nothing to do with a hockey play, Vancouver coach Travis Green was toeing the NHL company line when it comes to what the league’s elite players must endure. Sure, he was upset Elias Pettersson had sustained a knee sprain when he was tugged down by Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi away from the play, but Green reasoned that Pettersson is an excellent player. “You have to remember, excellent players have little hooks and holds, and you try to take away time and space,” Green said. “Watch the game. There are little hooks and holds that happen every play where there’s a stick on someone or someone is stepping in front of someone.”
Later that night, Connor McDavid took an elbow to the face from Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty, who smirked all the way back to the bench after doing it. The night after that, McDavid was pushed into the boards from behind by Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm on a hit that was 10 feet from referee Kyle Rehman, who was looking directly at the play. No penalty, nor was there a peep from the NHL’s department of player safety about supplemental discipline for Lindholm.
From time immemorial, it has been a given in the NHL that players who are bestowed with more gifts and work harder to exploit them will be rewarded by being the target of opponents stepping outside the bounds of the rulebook. Sometimes it’s subtle, as was the case with Kotkaniemi on Pettersson. Other times it’s blatant, as were the cases with Doughty and Lindholm on McDavid. And it’s accepted by almost everyone, including the stars themselves.
Of course, it’s ridiculous. It’s tantamount to suggesting that when Tiger Woods lines up a putt, another player should be allowed to tap his shoe with the end of his putter or cross-check him with it. Or that when Mike Trout is up to the plate, the catcher should be able to flick Trout’s ear or whack him in the knee with his mitt just as the pitcher releases the ball. No sport cares less about the well-being of its stars or does more to allow opponents to destroy their attempts to paint masterpieces. Quarterbacks in football are protected. LeBron James doesn’t have to worry about someone putting a hand over his face as he tries for a three-pointer or a layup. But hockey goes along its merry way thinking it’s perfectly fine to expect players such as Pettersson and McDavid to battle through these kinds of things in order to be successful.
And I have a theory about why this is. It is one I have espoused before, but it merits mentioning again. More so than in any other pro sport, the real power in the game is controlled by former players in the NHL. While other potential executives have as much, or more, to offer, former players find themselves on the fast track to management pretty much as soon as they peel off their equipment for the last time. One need look no further than the league’s player safety department, which is headed by George Parros, who had 158 career fights and 1,092 penalty minutes.
But it’s at the GM level where the real power exists when it comes to the on-ice product – and where the difference between the NHL and other sports comes into focus. Of the 31 GMs, 13 played in the NHL and another seven played some pro hockey. Compare that to the MLB, where just one GM, Jerry Dipoto of Seattle, played in the big leagues, and only four others played in the minors. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only five football departments are run by former NFL players. Among the 30 teams in the NBA, seven GMs are former players and another three played pro ball overseas.
Why is this germane to how star players are treated in the NHL? The real power to affect change is at the GM level, where the seeds of most of the rule changes and application of them are planted before moving on to the competition committee and board of governors. And old habits die hard. Some of these guys had careers specifically because of the hockey culture in which they find themselves now working in off-ice jobs. And even if they didn’t, some of them are so immersed in that culture that they’re not going to extend their thinking beyond what they’ve experienced as players.
One executive without a pro hockey background once told me about an ex-player who had been given a management position and accompanied him to scout an AHL game. Midway through the game, the executive asked the former player what he thought of the AHL. “I don’t know. This is the first AHL game I’ve ever seen,” was the response.
There are those in hockey who believe the league is better for having former players involved. And some ex-players have a lot to give. But hockey will continue to be stuck in the past until fewer, not more, former players have access to the levers of power.