When Georges Laraque met with NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell Monday morning, I’d bet he was humble, contrite and genuine when explaining that he didn’t intend to knock Niklas Kronwall out of the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup for the next month.
There’s really nothing you can do but like Laraque when you’re around him. Even over the phone, the guy’s exuberance for life is unmistakable. He does so many good things in the community and is so willing to promote the game in any way he can, you have a very difficult time finding anybody in hockey to slight him.
He even wishes good luck to the opponents he fights, for Semenko’s sake. If he would promise to repeat on demand the “anybody want a peanut?” line Andre the Giant made famous in Princess Bride (and Jason Segel made famous imitating in I Love You, Man), I would nominate him to be Canada’s mascot-in-perpetuity for all future Olympic Games.
Alas, Campbell’s verdict on Laraque’s collision with Kronwall Saturday night isn’t going to hinge on how lovable the Canadiens winger may be. Once again, Campbell – and the NHL ownership/league braintrust that directs him in the carrying out of his duties – has the opportunity to draw a line in the sand that won’t be subsequently peed upon, pointed at and mocked by players and coaches.
Perhaps that isn’t a priority for them. Perhaps what the league really wants is an institutional response that laughs in the faces of an incensed group of Red Wings supporters whose beloved winged-wheelers must now overcome an even steeper uphill battle to stay in the playoff race.
To those of you wondering how I could believe Laraque while at the same time wanting him punished in the name of precedent-setting, the answer is easy: for me, it is equally difficult to doubt the judgment of Detroit GM Ken Holland, who called Laraque’s hit ‘a dirty play.’
The truth of the Kronwall hit probably lies somewhere between Holland’s cries for conviction and Laraque’s protestations of innocence. Which is why it comes down to the same thing it always comes down to:
What kind of league is the NHL operating? What message does it want to send to its customers and employees?
Is it a league that wants to reward its fans with a level of player protection sufficient at keeping as many stars in the game as possible?
Or is it a league that thinks little enough of its players and fans that it imagines people will pay NHL ticket prices to watch a contingent of American League talent that grows each and every year as the NHL’s lesser lights are permitted to take out its marquee names?
Time has taught us to expect the NHL will abdicate its responsibilities in providing a reasonably safe workplace through the application of supplementary discipline. But if the league ever did decide to grow a pair and use Laraque as the cautionary tale that makes players think twice before reacting knee-first, fist-first, head-first, skate-first or butt-end-of-the-stick-first, I’d break out a line in all seriousness that I don’t normally use unless there’s extreme sarcasm involved:
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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