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Campbell's Cuts: Feel-good story doesn't outweigh real issue

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

It certainly warms the cockles of the heart to see the NHL did the right thing last week when it came to Brandon Sugden. Everybody loves an underdog and, Lord knows, Sugden has been through enough personal turmoil to deserve a chance to play in the NHL.

How sweet. Now let’s deal with the real issue here, the one Sugden’s media apologists and many of those in hockey refuse to acknowledge: Sugden and his ilk are a blight on the game and anything that can be used, even petty collective bargaining agreement provisions, to keep him out of the game is a good thing.

Sugden is nothing short of a goon. He’s not a tough player who can play and he’s not an intense competitor whose style of play inspires his teammates. He’s nothing more than a hired gun, the kind of on-ice lunatic teams seem to think they need to counter the other team’s on-ice lunatic. If the young man could actually play the game, don’t you think he would have scored more than, oh, zero goals, over the past two seasons in the worst professional hockey league on the planet?

Well, I guess the New York Islanders, who invited him to training camp this season, don’t think so, which goes a long way to explaining why they’ll almost certainly be prime players in the Victor Hedman/John Tavares sweepstakes this season. After the Islanders invited Sugden to camp, four teams used an obscure CBA provision to block him from coming back. That’s because Sugden signed retirement papers in 2006-07, which effectively banned him from playing in the NHL unless all 30 teams allowed for his return. Only 26 agreed he could.

The New York Rangers were reportedly one of the teams against Sugden’s return. But after a media campaign that portrayed Sugden as an oppressed victim generated a ton of bad publicity for the league, the NHL Players’ Association leaned on the NHL and the league leaned on the teams to relent.

Which is all well and good for Sugden, but it will be interesting to see NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly explain to some kid’s parents how they allowed Sugden to return to the game if Sugden ever maims an opponent. Remember, this is a guy who received a lifetime ban – which was later rescinded – from the ECHL for throwing his stick at an opposing team’s fan who was taunting him about his conquered substance abuse problems. Like any good goon, Sugden’s recollection of the events that led to him throwing his stick are hazy.

How convenient.

But none of that matters because Sugden and his ilk can always count on the NHLPA to come to their rescue and save their right to make a living. How the association justifies doing this for goons, all the while placing the rest of its membership in danger by doing so, continues to mystify.

But Sugden did indeed make a good story. A former substance abuser who wants to play in the NHL so his cancer-stricken father can watch him realize his dream? Too good a story to ignore, too easy to make the NHL look like idiots for not allowing it to happen and too easy to make Sugden a victim. The media ran with it and that bad publicity, along with the NHLPA’s prodding, were the main factors in Sugden being reinstated.

There was also a petition inspired by that stated, “Everyone seriously needs to sign this. If you consider yourself a hockey fan, or for some, hardcore hockey fans – you have no reason not to take a minute out of your day and try to give back to someone who has played his entire career for the purposes of entertaining those such as us.”

The petition received 1,061 signatures by the time Sugden was reinstated.

The rule that prevented Sugden from playing was instituted so legitimate players could not simply retire, then resurface with another team two months later. That wasn’t why four teams opposed Sugden returning. My bet is those teams were worried the Islanders would put Sugden in the minors and he’d run around attacking their young prospects.

Because let’s face it. Sugden is a 30-year-old who has been a pro for 11 seasons and has played a grand total of 175 games at the American League level, with the rest of them in hockey’s backwaters. He will not play for the Islanders and if he does they’re even worse than we all thought. If the Islanders think they’re fooling anyone with this, they’re also not quite as smart as we thought.

Sugden will come into camp, beat a couple of people up, show everyone on their staff why he has never played an NHL game and will once again be dispatched to the minors, where he’ll continue his dancing bear act in front of much smaller crowds.

And you die-hard fans of the St. Jean Chiefs of the Ligue Nord American du Hockey, don’t fret. You may just see your hero back in uniform there this season.

Click HERE to read Ken's follow-up blog on this story.


On a sad note, the hockey world lost one of its finest craftsmen and one of its most wonderful people when Jack Falla died suddenly early Sunday morning.

A regular contributor to THN, Falla was the best storyteller in hockey. He wrote hockey with a sense of emotion and depth that could not be matched. In person he was a warm, wonderful character who was passionate about the game and life.

Last Friday, I reviewed his latest book, Open Ice: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer. I suggest you pick it up, give it a read and celebrate the final work of one of the greatest writers this game has ever seen.

Ken Campbell is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His blog appears Tuesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.


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