The Edmonton Oilers orchestrated their complaints about officiating so well, if you didn’t know any better you’d swear Ken Hitchcock and Connor McDavid were in cahoots with each other.
The day after the Edmonton Oilers dropped a 4-2 decision to the Vancouver Canucks, Hitchcock comes out and publicly gripes about how his superstar is being manhandled, seemingly with the blessing of those whose job it is to enforce the rules. For his part, McDavid comes out a day later and talks about what a hard job the officials have and how there’s no point in critiquing their work. Hitchcock, who is accustomed to wearing the black hat, comes off looking to everyone outside of Edmonton as the whiner and complainer. But the message has been sent and the seed has been planted. McDavid, meanwhile, emerges unscathed, his reputation with the on-ice officials intact.
There has been much made of Hitchcock’s intentions when he said “the tug of war on (McDavid) was absolutely ridiculous,” against the Canucks. There was no subtlety there. It was a direct shot across the bow of the league and the officials to apply the same rules to McDavid as they do to everyone else. Hitchcock and other coaches have been doing this for time immemorial. Sometimes it works.
But do you know what else has been constant in the NHL since long before kids started ‘flossing’? The notion that because players such as Connor McDavid have been blessed with more talent, a higher work ethic and an uncompromising sense of self accountability, they must endure more abuse than less talented players. Because hockey. Bobby Hull, who is the only player in NHL history aside from Alex Ovechkin to lead the league in goals seven times, was complaining about exactly this kind of thing more than 50 years ago. Bobby Orr, the greatest defenseman to ever play the game, had his career cut short in part because of the abuse he took. When Peter Stastny first came into the league, he often had to drive home from games using his right hand because his left arm was black and blue with bruises. “They used to chop and hook and hold, anything to stop you,” Stastny said. Mario Lemieux, perhaps the greatest physical talent the game has ever seen, once referred to the NHL as a “garage league” because of it and retired for three years because he was tired of taking the abuse.
In no other sport is this kind of thinking more prevalent. For years, star players have been forced to endure more attention from less skilled players than themselves and if they ever make an issue of it, they’re portrayed as whiners. That’s likely part of the reason McDavid is not speaking out against how opponents target him. Another reason is he’s been putting up with this ever since he was a little kid.
And that’s because hockey not only allows this kind of thing, it encourages it. Instead of rewarding players for being better and more talented than others, hockey culture more often than not is complicit in players who want to destroy masterpieces than it is in encouraging players to create them. And it’s all in the name of parity. It’s a way of leveling the playing field for teams that don’t have those kinds of players. And it’s condoned by a league that is rife with former players, many of whom were marginal talents themselves, controlling the levers of power.
What people have to remember is that these star players are not being asked to be treated any differently. All they want is the same amount of ice to do their work as other players are given. Have you ever heard a star player say he doesn’t think he should be subject to clean bodychecks? (Although the notion that anyone who hits a star player should have to answer for it borders on nonsensical.)
It will be very interesting to see whether Connor McDavid continues to draw fewer penalties than Warren Foegele, who incidentally is a pretty skilled player himself, going forward. If it results in more calls for McDavid and more room to work, Hitchcock will have been successful in his lobbying efforts. But it’s good for everyone who likes to see special players do special things when someone calls the league and its culture out occasionally on this.