This has so far been a great playoff for the people over at NHL.com, the league’s sanctioned website, who specialize in highlighting violence with a “Must See” headline. Same for the guys over at hockeyfights.com, who at this time of the year are usually reduced to watching classic videos of the Broad Street Bullies to keep their salivary glands active.
For those interested in watching a game that isn’t being run amok by silliness and being dragged into the gutter? Not so much.
This is usually the time of year when fighting takes a nosedive, but with 11 fights so far in 19 games, they’re actually up from the regular season. Three suspensions have been levied with more on the way and the face of the league is resorting to childlike tactics and completely losing his composure.
Next time you see a pass coming to a forward standing in front of the net, chances are that guy is going to get crosschecked in the back before the puck ever gets to him and it will happen within 10 feet of a referee who’s standing behind the net and presumably watching where the puck is going.
Oh yeah, thus far the playoffs have produced a total of 71 minutes and 33 seconds of overtime and not a single minor penalty has been called.
Congratulations, old-time hockey lovers. Almost seven years after the NHL hijacked your game with an unprecedented display of forward thinking and common sense, you’ve officially been given it back. And the ultimate irony in all of this is during the lockout, Brendan Shanahan was at the forefront of a movement to provide the game with a style that has resulted in more excitement than we’ve seen in almost a generation. And now he’s part of the machinery that’s intent on dragging it back into the dark ages.
The rodeo is back in town. Stars are being blatantly targeted for cheap shots. The league that publicly expresses its disdain for blows to the head is quickly declaring open season on the cranium. Games are being remembered more for ridiculous histrionics and bad blood than for anything that is accomplished while the clock is actually running. Teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins have become obsessed with delivering a message, the content of which is they’re intent on playing like a bunch of morons and embarrassing themselves in the process.
Earlier this season, Arron Asham of the Penguins made the league look like the WWE with his ridiculous gestures after a fight with Jay Beagle. In Game 3 of the Penguins series against the Philadelphia Flyers, he assaulted Brayden Schenn with his stick. This is a guy who needs to have the privilege of playing in the best league in the world taken away from him for a long, long time.
And this one is not on the players. The constant mantra has been that the guys who strap on the pads are to blame because of their lack of respect for one another. That may be true, but those same players have been conditioned to react this way and they’re tacitly encouraged to play that way by a body of authority that in best case scenarios allows it to go unpunished and in worst case scenarios actually encourages it.
Which brings us to the oldest point in the hockey world. Players at every level of the game will push the boundaries as far as they’re extended. We learned after the lockout that if players are made accountable for their style of play and know they’ll be penalized, they’ll change their behavior. More than anything, players simply want to know what they can and can’t do and have historically almost always adjusted their behavior accordingly. So when they see muggings in the offensive zone are back in vogue, what do you think they’re going to do? When they see Shea Weber drill Henrik Zetterberg’s face into the glass and receive a fine equivalent to about 90 minutes (or 0.0003 percent) of his regular season pay, how do you expect them to react?
The biggest problem is all of this garbage has overshadowed the fact there has actually been some good, entertaining hockey played so far in the playoffs. The Detroit-Nashville series has been terrific. The Kings and Canucks have played three outstanding games and it would be difficult to find hockey as intense and hard fought as the Phoenix-Chicago series.
But it’s the Monday after the first weekend of the playoffs and what is everyone talking about? The garbage that is dragging the game into the mud. I believe deep down the NHL wants it this way. No sense trying to attract a new constituency of fans when the old one is so loyal.
Those who run the league at its highest levels have so little faith in the beauty, intensity and emotion when the game is played at its highest level that they feel compelled to allow this nonsense to continue relatively unabated.
And that’s sad. Very sad.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.