The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Will Munny: We all have it coming, kid.
– Unforgiven, 1992
I think of Clint Eastwood’s legendary western film just about every time an NHLer makes headlines over a debatable hit, as the movie’s unmistakable message on moral ambiguity resonates in virtually every instance of borderline physicality.
Unforgiven’s theme was applicable again this weekend after Flyers center Mike Richards devastated David Booth with a check that landed the Panthers sniper concussed in a Philadelphia hospital.
In the opinion of Florida GM Randy Sexton, Richards’ check was, “a late hit and a dirty hit.”
Sexton also said he anticipated the league would reprimand Richards.
“I do believe the league will act appropriately,” Sexton told NHL.com. “There's been a lot of discussion about taking out those type of hits, especially to the head. I have full confidence that after the league has a chance to review it they'll take appropriate action.”
So much for “full confidence,” because the NHL applied no supplementary discipline on Richards, no doubt leaving Panthers players to plot their own revenge on the Flyers captain when the two teams next meet on Dec. 21.
But the Panthers aren’t the only team feeling slighted by the scales of NHL justice. In fact, hardly a day or week passes by anymore without a case of questionable on-ice activity.
And before them this season, we’ve seen Willie Mitchell scramble the eggs of Jonathan Toews, Dion Phaneuf level Kyle Okposo, Alex Ovechkin slew-foot Rich Peverley and Evgeny Artyukhin do the same to Matt Niskanen.
In each case, the team whose player was victimized cried out for justice. But out of all those incidents, the only ones the league thus far has found deserving of a suspension were Ruutu and Artyukhin, who were both handed three games.
That tells you one of two things: either it’s only non-superstar European players who solely comprise the NHL’s dirty s.o.b. contingent or the league has all but sealed shut its eyes and ears when it comes to the relentless wave of envelope-pushing by players and the epidemic of serious injuries to some of hockey’s brightest stars.
I’m positive it’s the latter, and not at all the former, that’s the truth.
Indeed, I can hardly wait until we see the league’s GMs “address” this issue during one of their upcoming meetings. They’ll issue some somber statements on hockey being a “man’s game” (as if all other sports are played by apron-wearing, trans-gendered pansies) – and, the same way they decided last season there was no need for a new rule on head shots, they’ll sneer at any notion of seriously dealing with the ongoing, increasing threat to player safety.
Part of the issue is that most of the current GMs played during a time when the NHL game wasn’t nearly so skilled and swift. Very few of them seem to comprehend that, with perhaps a few exceptions (the Lindros Bros. being most notable), this group of NHLers are the guinea pig generation, thanks to players’ increased size and strength as well as post-lockout rule changes that permit, if not encourage, players to hurtle themselves across the rink with little to no regard for even their own well-being.
Contrary to the standard league line, there is a way that NHL games can be physical without the slow-drip cannibalization of the sport’s greatest assets. But it will take a massive amount of courage for someone in the NHL head offices to draw a line in the sand and intimidate players into compliance through thousands of dollars in lost earnings.
Today, there is no such impetus, no such backbone. Consequently, it is a certainty that there will be even more serious injuries and different superstars added to the list of the aggrieved. And because teams will continue to believe they were slighted, that their opponents “had it coming” for perceived dirty deeds, the cycle will continue.
As Eastwood’s Will Munny character noted, though, they’ve all got it coming.
If only they were governed by a sheriff who did something other than (a) profit off their broken bodies and (b) lean on logic-free justifications to keep players in permanent vigilante mode, they might leave the meting out of justice to the institutions of authority where they belong.
And we might finally get to a long-awaited point where we can return to marveling over the players’ impact on the game, rather than recoiling at the game’s impact on players.
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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