The second Brad Richards’ head slammed into the boards Sunday night, you could hear the clucking of tongues in the hockey world. A reckless play by a reckless player. And, of course, the predictable proclamations that there is no place for this in the game.
Well, we all should have saved our breath. Because there is a place for Patrick Kaleta’s hit from behind on Richards, a very prominent place. That’s because there’s a place in the league for unaccountable, dastardly players such as Kaleta. And because of that, and the fact that the NHL is a complete coward when it comes to standing up to these miscreants, we have to have fighting.
You see, the problem is that players such as Richards and others around the league are quick to denounce players such as Kaleta when something like this happens to them or one of their teammates. But, mark my words, if Kaleta were traded to the New York Rangers tomorrow, Richards would be one of the first players to shake his hand and welcome him to the team. And that’s because the NHL and everyone in it likes having players such as Kaleta around.
The NHL is enveloped in such a culture of violence that it actually encourages players such as Kaleta to exist. It promotes violence on its own website, sells it with as much vigor as it does skill and creativity and seems to love the idea that forcing players to have their antennae up at all times for players such as Kaleta is a good thing for the game.
And that, of course, is why we need fighters in the NHL as well. Because the league essentially has no spine when it comes to meting out discipline against these guys, teams feel the need to do it themselves. There is no sport in the world where either real or believed transgressions have to be addressed with violence the way they do in hockey. Case in point: Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers crumples Max Pacioretty into the boards. Pacioretty then has to address that by launching himself into McDonagh later in the game. No penalty. No supplemental discipline. No fine. Nothing. It’s basically an open invitation to exact revenge.
But what really mystifies is the fact the NHL’s department of player safety can be so decisive and make so much sense one day, suspending Harry Zolnierczyk of the Philadelphia Flyers for four games for his head shot on Mike Lundin of the Ottawa Senators – and so little sense the next. Giving Kaleta a telephone hearing means he’ll be suspended no more than five games and will avoid the new provision in the collective bargaining agreement that allows a player to appeal any suspension of six-plus games to an independent arbitrator. Kaleta is, by definition, a repeat offender and if the NHL ever wanted to actually deter this kind of behavior, it would use his status as a reason to deal harshly with him.
And, as always, if this were an isolated case, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a problem. But last Thursday night, with the Edmonton Oilers leading his Dallas Stars 5-1 with four minutes left, Jamie Benn left the bench and delivered a vicious crosscheck to the back of Ryan Jones of the Oilers. Benn was not suspended, but received a $10,000 fine, the maximum a player can be fined under the new CBA.
Benn’s team was losing badly late in the game and he was minus-2 that night. He had been minus-3 in each of the two previous games, making him minus-8 for that three-game set, so you clearly had a frustrated player. He gets off the bench, skates directly at Jones – who had just seconds before made absolutely no effort to avoid a collision with Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen – and drills the shaft of his stick right into Jones’ numbers.
So let’s break this down. Benn was fined $10,000. Based on his salary this season of $4.5 million, Benn will earn $2.47 million because of the truncated season and the fact he missed the first six days of the season. If you equate that to someone making $100,000 a year, that’s a fine of $404. Do you know any workplace in North America that would fine someone $400 for attacking a fellow employee because he was having a bad week?
It’s very clear to these eyes that the department of player safety has become hockey’s most prominent contradiction of terms – right up there with army intelligence and jumbo shrimp. And no five-game suspension to Patrick Kaleta is going to do a thing to change that.
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. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.