If old-time hockey is back, it’s left many—from Al Arbour to Wayne Gretzky and even Don Cherry—questioning whether they like the gritty sequel.
Stopping well short of making comparisons to the bloody, gap-toothed Broad Street Bully era of the 1970s, Arbour is upset with the head-hunting hits and suspension-a-day headlines dominating the first round of the NHL playoffs.
“It surprises me,” the retired hall of fame coach said by phone from his home in Florida. “Never mind what it was in our day. It’s getting carried away. They’re getting carried away with everything. They’re reckless in what they’re doing right now.”
Watching games every night on TV, Arbour was bothered seeing stars Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux exchange punches during Game 3 of the Penguins-Flyers’ series last weekend. And he was particularly upset in seeing Phoenix forward Raffi Torres go unpenalized after launching himself into Marian Hossa with such force that the Chicago forward had to be carted off the ice on Tuesday.
“Yes, it does bother me,” Arbour said. “It bothers me a lot.”
He’s not alone in wondering whether today’s game is crossing the line from thrilling to thuggery.
“It’s a little bit risque’ right now, there’s no question,” Gretzky told Philadelphia’s Fanatic-Radio, while noting he’s most surprised by how star players are being targeted.
“They talk about the Flyers back in the ’70s, guys like Bobby Kelly, Moose Dupont and Dave Schultz. But you never really saw those guys go after guys like Bobby Orr or Mario Lemieux or Phil Esposito,” Gretzky said. “It was just sort of honest, hard, rough-nosed hockey.
“And it’s changed.”
Cherry, a former coach and long-time commentator on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, drew the line when it came to blindside hits such as the one Torres delivered, and Rangers forward Carl Hagelin’s elbow that knocked out Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson in Game 2 of their series.
“To me, they’re cheapshots,” Cherry said on his Coach’s Corner segment Wednesday. “They are not warriors when you blindside guys like that.”
Through the first eight days of the playoffs, nine players have been issued suspensions, including Torres who will learn whether his indefinite ban will be extended following a hearing Friday. Two other players, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and the Ottawa Senators have also been fined.
Penalty minutes are up over previous playoff first rounds. According to STATS LLC, teams are averaging 18 penalty minutes a game this year, which is pacing at the highest rate since 1998, when the first-round average was 20.1 minutes. Leading the way is the Flyers-Penguins slugfest of a series, which has produced 282 penalty minutes in four games.
Yet the rise is coming on the heels of one of the least penalized regular seasons of the NHL’s modern era. Teams averaged 11.2 penalty minutes per game last season, the lowest total in at least 23 years, according to STATS.
And it was a season in which the NHL made strides in addressing hits to the head after numerous star players—Crosby, Philadelphia’s James van Riemsdyk, Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller—missed stretches due to concussion-related injuries.
“It’s emotion,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said referring to the physical nature of the playoffs. “I think everybody believes they have a chance right now. Passionate groups, all 16 of them, worked hard to get here and they’re trying to find an edge any way they can.”
The NHL’s chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has been faulted for being inconsistent. The criticism began when he fined Nashville captain Shea Weber the league maximum $2,500 for being “reckless” in punching and then shoving Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg head-first into the glass in Game 1 of their series.
Though Zetterberg wasn’t hurt, Shanahan’s ruling led questions regarded what merited a suspension.
“Right now it’s always going to be blurred lines. It’s never going to be black and white,” Predators defenceman Kevin Klein said. “But hopefully, guys come to terms with the rules and maybe back off just a little bit.”
NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire believes Shanahan missed an opportunity.
“I wish he suspended Shea Weber for a game. I think that would’ve sent a message around the league,” McGuire said. “He didn’t do that, so things kind of started to move pretty quickly.”
McGuire does credit Shanahan for how he’s responded since by issuing multiple-game suspensions to several players, and one-game bans to such stars as Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom and Pittsburgh’s James Neal.
And McGuire was impressed further by how the officials responded in setting the tone by calling eight penalties in the first period alone of Pittsburgh’s 10-3 win over Philadelphia on Wednesday.
“The referees conducted themselves unbelievably well last night and created probably the template for the rest of the series,” he said. “Players know if they act up, they’re done.”
Email messages left with the NHL were not returned.
The fisticuffs haven’t turned off fans. NBC announced that more than 18.4 million viewers have watched the playoffs through Tuesday. That’s up nearly 5 million over the same period as last year.
Former player and current CBC analyst P.J. Stock says the jump in ratings make it hard to determine whether the increased violence is good or bad for the game.
“The NHL is kind of stuck here, because the politically correct and public answer is ‘It’s not good. We don’t want to see that,'” Stock said. “So yes, they hate the fact that all this negativity is surrounding the game. But at the same time, we have more people watching, so there’s good and bad with it. I guess there’s no such thing as bad press.”
AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., Dan Gelston in Philadelphia, Josh Dubow in San Jose, Calif., and Rick Gano in Chicago, contributed to this story.