A few days ago, I was clicking through Wikipedia and stumbled on what may be my new favorite page on the site. Titled “List of National Hockey League controversies” and promising “a list of controversies which have occurred in the National Hockey League over its history,” at the time I found it the page listed a grand total of… three things.
Yeah, you know what Wikipedia, I’m going to go ahead and say this is not a complete and comprehensive list. pic.twitter.com/zZ3D1AYWvd
— Down Goes Brown (@DownGoesBrown) December 22, 2016
That seemed low.
Let’s be honest — on a good night, the NHL will give us three new controversies before most of the game have hit intermission. And in 2016, as always, the NHL provided plenty of new entries to the ongoing list. Much of that was firmly in the no-laughing-matter category, as issues like the concussion lawsuit, Dennis Wideman’s hit on Don Henderson and a steady stream of offside replay reviews had fans fuming.
But other controversies of 2016 were just, well, dumb. They were the kind that had you shaking your head, rolling your eyes, and wondering “What are we even doing here?” Those are the kind of controversies that the league probably wishes would go away quickly, never to be mentioned again.
Well, the Wikipedia editors may forget, but I don’t. So before we flip the calendars ahead to 2017, let’s take one last look back at the five dumbest controversies of 2016.
5. Gerald Gallant and the cab
Coaching in the NHL isn’t easy. You work countless hours, you’re measured on results that are largely out of your control and you have to deal with the media at every turn. And, inevitably, you get fired.
That last part happened to a few coaches in 2016, most recently Gerald Gallant. He was canned by the Panthers just months after being a Jack Adams finalist, raising more than a few eyebrows around the league.
But the firing itself wasn’t the controversy. The big story here was the Gallant ended up taking a cab.
Yes, apparently losing your job is just part of the game, but having to take a taxi to the airport is some sort of mortal insult. The Panthers’ organization had already somehow become ground zero for every hockey hot take, but this was simply going too far. Those dastardly computer boys had probably outsourced their transportation policy to some new-fangled abacus!
Later, we found out the whole thing had just been a misunderstanding, with Gallant himself telling everyone to knock it off. But the damage had been done, the cab had been called and a horrified hockey world is still recovering.
4. A name taken in vain
Building an expansion team into a contender can take years, and many teams never manage to pull it off. There’s an expansion draft to run, trades to make and a roster to slowly assemble through years of careful drafting and development. It’s hard work.
Here’s what’s not supposed to be hard: Picking a name. That checklist is pretty simple. Pick something vaguely surprising. Run it by the trademark lawyers just to be sure. And, uh, maybe double-check that your cool introductory video is actually going to work when you hit play.
In 2016, the Vegas Golden Knights went oh-for-three.
Oh, the name itself is fine. Dropping the “Las” is the kind of overly clever move that everyone else will just ignore, but otherwise Golden Knights is OK. But we’d already known it was going to be something Knights-related for months. And when it came time for the big announcement, the A/V department was apparently home sick.
But the controversy came after everything had been announced and (we thought) finalized. Weeks after the unveiling, word trickled out that the Golden Knights’ trademark filing had been rejected. Just a legal technicality, we were assured, everything will be fine. And it probably will. But for an organization that already had a big job cut out for it, they sure seem to be struggling with what’s supposed to be the easy part.
3. John Tortorella takes a stand
The NFL found itself in the middle of a major controversy this year, as several players chose to make political statements during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. It was the sort of issue that’s red meat for talk radio, sports and otherwise, and dominated discussion for weeks.
The NHL, of course, got a significantly dumber knock-off version.
At the World Cup, Team USA coach John Tortorella made it very clear that none of his players would be emulating the NFL’s protests, and that doing so would cost them their spot in the lineup. His players responded with a collective, “Um, none of us were ever planning to do that.”
The NHL has become a league where smiling at the wrong time makes you a controversial figure, so the idea that a player was going to suddenly engage in an on-ice political demonstration was far-fetched to say the least. Tortorella feeling the need to put his foot down so publicly was an odd look, to say the least.
When asked for comment, Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said, “I don’t know why we’re talking about this.” You weren’t the only one, Mike.
2. Phil Kessel drops the hammer
On the bright side, at least Tortorella didn’t end up having to worry about his players disrespecting the anthem during any medal ceremonies.
Team USA was swept out of the World Cup early, failing to make the playoff round. That may have been due at least in part to some odd roster decisions, including the snubs of offensive-minded players like Tyler Johnson, Justin Faulk and Phil Kessel. That last one probably wouldn’t ruffle any feathers, since we all know Kessel has no personality and has never said anything interesting in his entire…
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn’t put my finger on it.
— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
Wait, where did that come from?
Apparently, Phil Kessel had been hiding a sense of humor all these years. His playful tweet didn’t even mention Team USA directly, but we all knew what the joke meant, and we all knew exactly how to react to it.
For most of us, that reaction was to enjoy a laugh and move on. But if you happened to be a member of Team USA, then the reaction was to be a giant baby about it.
David Backes vowed to remember. Derek Stepan thought it sounded disrespectful. Tortorella wasn’t happy. And around the hockey world, we suddenly had to pick apart Kessel’s one-liner, wondering if he had crossed some sort of unspoken line.
Kessel later offered up a quasi-apology, although in what stands as the greatest sports upset of the entire year, the tweet can still be found online to this day. That’s because, unlike so many other modern athletes, Kessel is a man of his convictions who stands behind his own words. Or more likely, he doesn’t know how to delete things on Twitter.
As of press time, nobody has yet asked him whether he typed the tweet while the national anthem was playing.
1. Everything involving John Scott
Let’s start by acknowledging that the All-Star Game itself served up a great story. Scott’s MVP performance, capped off with the Pacific captain being carried around the ice on his teammates’ shoulders, was the kind of thing they make Hollywood movies about. And they probably will, with reports emerging within weeks that a project was already in the works.
Here’s hoping the script editors have their red pens handy, because man, there’s going to be a lot of stupidity to cross out of this plot.
Start with the ballot box stuffing idea itself, which was never meant to honor Scott at all. It was a big middle finger to the NHL and to an all-star game the league had allowed to become a joke. While it was easy to forget once Scott become a sympathetic figure, the idea all along was to elect the worst player possible and he was the poor guy who fit the bill.
Then, as they tend to do in these situations, the NHL took a bad situation and found a way to make it far worse. Initially, they seemed to want to pretend the vote wasn’t happening. When they finally acknowledged it, they worked behind the scenes to convince Scott to stay home. The Coyotes put the slugger on waivers, sent him to minors and eventually traded him. At some point, somebody even brought Scott’s kids into it.
By the time it was over, everyone seemed to want to desperately want to retcon the whole thing into some sort of treacly triumph. But it wasn’t. It was a mess from start to finish, and the league and it fans just happened to luck into a happy ending rather than the total disaster they probably deserved.
So congratulations, John Scott and friends. In a year of dumb controversy, you took the title. Now let’s see what even more ridiculous nonsense 2017 has in store for us.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.