The same league that has proved time and again that it has no interest in protecting its star players from the actions of thugs and miscreants is more than happy to protect stars who are thugs and miscreants themselves. That’s really the only conclusion that can be drawn from the NHL’s ridiculously feeble five-game suspension to Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins for his flying elbow to the head of Marcus Johansson of the New Jersey Devils.
It’s bad enough that Marchand only received five games for an action that was so egregious, so blatant and so gratuitously vicious and dirty. But what makes it worse is that George Parros and his band at the NHL’s department of player safety watched Marchand’s indiscretion hundreds of times in slow motion from every angle and never had any intention of giving him more than five games. It made that crystal clear when it passed on the option of mandating an in-person hearing for Marchand, since the league is permitted to give a suspension of six or more games only when it calls the player on the carpet in person. And despite the suspension, this guy still gets to play in the All-Star Game this weekend. It almost gives you the impression this league loves trolling people, doesn’t it?
That’s because the league says one thing, then does another. It talks about things like Marchand’s elbow having no place in the game, then gives a serial repeat offender a laughable sentence.
Could the league have justified throwing the book at Marchand and hoping to knock some sense into him in the process? Well, consider that prior to this incident, Marchand had been suspended five times for a total of 14 games for spearing an opponent in the junk, a low-bridge hit, slew-footing, elbowing and clipping. And he had been fined three times for slew-footing, roughing and tripping. At least he likes to mix it up. That’s an impressive depth and breadth of dirty play there.
But a funny thing has happened to Marchand over the past couple of seasons. He’s become a star player in this league, one of the best left wingers on the planet and one-third of a line with center Patrice Bergeron and right winger David Pastrnak that has been the dominant line in the league at both ends of the ice. Marchand is actually a charismatic and fun-loving person, an engaging conversationalist and a guy with offensive talent and competitive instincts that are off the charts. But he’s also a dirty, reckless player who doesn’t seem to be able to be rehabilitated. When he plays on the wrong side of the rulebook, he’s downright dangerous.
There will be “hockey people” who will undoubtedly applaud the league for being decisive and sending a firm message with a five-game ban down the stretch, but the reality is this sentence is a joke, particularly when it’s framed by Marchand’s history. Double digits would have been a good place to start here. The league had a golden opportunity to send a message here, but you have to wonder if it even wants to do that.
And I’ll tell you why. Those same “hockey people” will maintain that if you take Marchand’s edge away from him and discourage him from playing a reckless game, you run the risk of making him a less effective player and you diminish his impact on the game. That’s the way these people think. It apparently doesn’t matter that this is a load of unadulterated hooey.
And Exhibit A in that argument is Stan Mikita. For the first seven years of his career, Mikita was a nasty piece of work. Along with winning two scoring titles, Mikita had four seasons of 100-plus penalty minutes. But after leading the NHL in points with 87 and piling up a career-high 154 penalty minutes in 1954-55, Mikita had an epiphany and cut his PIMs down to 58 the next season. By the 1956-57 season, Mikita had his PIMs down to just 12 and won the Lady Byng Trophy. Mikita went on two win two more scoring titles in his career and won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player the same seasons he led the league in points. Clearly, cleaning up his act did not diminish Mikita one iota as a player and, in fact, added to his legacy.
Mikita has told the story many times and said he experienced his epiphany when his daughter asked him one day why he was always sitting by himself so much while his teammates were out there playing. Even though Marchand is now on his sixth suspension and has forfeited close to $900,000 dollars, it would be wise not to expect any such transformation from Marchand, a player the league is only too happy to trot out for its all-star festivities this weekend. That’s because nobody will call Marchand on his behavior because teammates, the league and all those “hockey people” are too busy liking what he brings to the game.
Carry on, then.