Ream out the Philadelphia Flyers organization for their seemingly weekly parade of suspendable on-ice actions if you must. But I’m not laying all of the blame – or even the majority of it – at the feet of Ed Snider, Paul Holmgren, John Stevens or any particular twit who pulls a Black and Orange jersey over their head before committing a dangerous offense during a game.
In reality, it all starts and ends with the people who truly govern the behavior of franchises – i.e., the braintrust of the league itself and its historically hapless Players’ Association. And any discussion of how to get this crazy train back on the rails has to include an institutional about-face on behalf of the men who pay the bills, as well as the men whose bills are among the biggest paid.
Thankfully, should commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA chief Paul Kelly not choose to change, lawyers and courts may force them to in the very near future.
Whether it’s mandatory visors, hits from behind and/or to the head, or outright goonery, the league and NHLPA have long been loath to properly protect their most vital employees and expensive investments.
That’s likely the biggest reason players believe they have no choice but to seek retribution for perceived slights. And these days, when no NHLer can absorb a hard hit without his teammates rushing to his defense as if he’d just been beheaded, there are more perceived slights per game than there are quality scoring chances.
Still, there is no urgency to curtail the madness, no consistently harsh punishment to force players to seriously reconsider their strategy of relentless, reckless abandonment. Sure, there have been a couple of meaningful suspensions this season, but for the most part, it’s been the same old, two-games here, four-games there, song and dance.
However, with Steve Moore’s lawsuit against Todd Bertuzzi looming large on the NHL’s horizon – and with a recent report stating then-Canucks coach Marc Crawford came out and demanded that Moore “pay the price” for his earlier hit on Markus Naslund – the ugliest aspects of pro hockey’s highest level will soon be dragged into the daylight for all to examine.
According to one prominent sports attorney and former NHL agent, Moore’s case probably won’t be the last lawsuit to cast the game in a negative light. And what’s worse, the next time the league becomes embroiled in a public legal spectacle, it may find itself the target of a lawsuit, rather than one of its players.
“One day, there will be, I’m sure, a lawsuit against the league itself,” said Gord Kirke, a Toronto-based lawyer and professor who once represented, among other NHLers, Eric Lindros and Rick Nash. “Part of it is because of the increasing violence in the game, but part of it, too, is that there appears to be less of a collegial, mutual respect among players.
“For a long time, players believed other players had a right to earn a living playing hockey,” Kirke continued, “and there used to be an unwritten code of honor that you wouldn’t take anything out in court and kept matters within the game. But because the game has changed to a large extent and there’s a lot more violence and risk of injury…now it’s more a case of everybody for themselves, by and large.
“If you believe people are out to hurt people now, you have less respect for them and are therefore less hesitant to launch a lawsuit against them.”
Kirke believes the players’ union might also be sued by aggrieved players.
“It’s not just about what the National Hockey League may or may not want to do (with the rules),” he said. “It’s what they’re able to collectively bargain with the Players’ Association, as well. The players have in the past sometimes resisted things perhaps you think they would embrace – safety elements like helmets or full-face visors.
“You can see an argument being made, for example, if someone suffered a head injury that could’ve been prevented if full visors were mandated. You could see an argument being advanced that there was negligence on the part of the National Hockey League and the Players’ Association, because they knew the proper thing would be to (implement) a full visor, for example, but they wouldn’t take that step, and left (a player) exposed.”
So moan all you want about the big, bad Flyers. The fact remains they wouldn’t operate that way if the NHL didn’t allow them to. Which is why the league, not a single team or player, is going to suffer the most when a litigious, determined individual finally says enough is enough and separates league owners from a significant portion of their fortunes.
For Steve Moore and many others, that day can’t arrive soon enough.
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