Recently, Bob McKenzie wrote a short article about violence in the NHL. He said that no-one actually involved in the game of hockey cared about the violence issue, and that for every Teemu Selanne there were 100 more who didn’t care. To summarize, the coaches, GM’s, and owners also don’t care about the violence issue. He washed his hands of the problems involved, effectively stating that this is an issue only for those outside the sport.
Someone must call this opinion to task. Although I am a reluctant champion, I do believe Mr. McKenzie to be wrong. I am not so foolish as to believe that I am going to be read by the folks at TSN, but I’m sure that if someone important does manage to read this article, it won’t win me any friends.
It is time for the violence apologetics of the NHL, nearly uniquely Canadian might I add, to re-evaluate their stance. By no means is Mr. McKenzie the poster boy for NHL violence. But, saying that everyone doesn’t care is short sighted. I’m sure that the families of players involved care. I’m sure the ratio of players who care is better than one to 100. In fact, I’m willing to bet all my worldly possessions on this statement: Skill players across the league care. The last time I checked, skill players sell tickets. Darby Hendrickson doesn’t. If they care, they need to be heard. So kindly don’t poo-poo their opinions. They sell the tickets that keep lots of people in jobs.
The levels of violence now in the game are crippling the NHL’s ability to compete with other sport giants like bowling and curling. Yes, Bowling and Curling. Those two most entertaining of television sports, get more viewers in North America than Hockey. In the US, the most powerful viewing market in the world, economically speaking, the number of people who watch hockey is minuscule. Hockey, in the US, is a non-entity. Why? Is it because Hockey is the only sport to condone fighting. Certainly Bowling would be more entertaining with a few fisticuffs, or a bench clearing brawl. A little blood would excite the crowd, yes?
Who is watching NHL hockey? Mostly, Canadians. Who is defending violence in NHL hockey? Mostly, Canadians. Who wants to see violence in hockey on the television? NOT AMERICANS.
It’s a leap, I’ll grant, to say that violence is the only thing that drives Americans away from watching hockey games. I have yet to find another argument that convinces me as truly. In the last few weeks, the only time the NHL has received any real media coverage were during the Bertuzzi and Belak scandals. Violent clips of their exploits played again, and again, and again. Did hockeys viewership go up during that time? Funny that it didn’t, even with all that media coverage. Could violence sell less well than Brittney Spears?
Some defend the game saying “it has always been this way.” Well, to those who argue that, welcome to the new millennium, where specifics are part of the word game. Violence, has always been a part of Canadian Hockey. At the International, European, and American levels, however, this simply is not true, and it never has been. Like it or not, Canadians are largely, perhaps uniquely, to blame for the violence in hockey.
The game is different now than it used to be in the glory days of the dynasties. Somehow this seems to be lost on most Canadians. And this is the root of the problem. Hockey has changed, but mentalities haven’t.
Hockey, the way Canadians play it, is in danger. If it can’t compete with Bowling, it can’t compete with anything. So the game needs to evolve.
But I warily point out, the game has evolved. The major change? Average size and strength among the players. Wayne Gretzky said recently that the skill level of the NHL has risen dramatically since he entered the league. Back in the early 80s, a 6 foot 2 defenseman was a liability. They were slow. No more. Players are conditioned, fast, big, and strong. There are more physical presences than ever before, on every team.
Players are no longer equipped with a stick made of wood. Now they use one piece metal shafts. It’s the equivalent of being handed a metal pipe, a favourite rumble weapon.
Is there more? Yes, don’t forget about Sudafed. Players are frequently doping up with Sudafed in some form before playing. If this doesn’t effect their mental stability in the mind of fans, then I have a tower in Paris to sell them. Are players armed and dangerous?
There is one more central issue – Respect for fellow players. It used to be that respect was part of the game. You could always find some jerk who was ready to injure other players, but that fellow was taken to task immediately. These days though, those players are hoarded. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, are positively chock full of them, filled to the brim with guys intent to injure. Bryan Marchment, Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker, and now Wade Belak have seriously injured an opposing player, either in the playoffs or in the regular season. Marchment, of course, is a repeat offender, whose list is long and tedious. Domi seriously injured Scott Niedermeyer during their playoff semifinal matchup a few years back, and Tucker caught Mike Peca off his guard just last year in the first round. Don’t forget the time Shayne Corson tried to kick someone with his skate. Last season, the Canadian Olympic team had to write the word Respect, with a stop sign, on the back of their practise jerseys. Mark Messier, who beat the stuff out of Ulf Samuelsson one year for lacking respect for his fellow players, speared a rookie last week. Respect is gone, but the violence remains.
On the other hand, in some important and harmful ways, hockey has not changed. The size of the rink, for instance, is no bigger than before. But, players are bigger. They fight harder for room on the ice surface leading to more injuries, and more fights. Players like Markus Naslund and Alexei Kovalev can’t stretch for a puck safely anymore, even though they skate faster than ever. There isn’t enough room on the ice surface. Maurice Richard would never have played well in the league today. He would never have been able to carry the puck long enough to be effective.
But, by and large, the game has changed all right. The players are stronger, hit each other harder with stiffer equipment, and might compromise their mental stability to do it. All this to compete for Dollars.
Millions of dollars the fans should pay, but don’t. Millions of dollars of entertainment revenue that the owners don’t see. Millions of dollars in a market which remains closed to the NHL. TV deals are being cut. NHL on TV is going to be a hard sell in the US than ever before. There is Bowling and Curling and Golf to watch. And yet, most folks involved in Hockey refuse to acknowledge this inconsistency, this conflict of interest that is ultimately bad for the NHL. Why? Who is to blame?
Well, everyone needs to share the blame. Owners don’t want to lose their premium seating for the sake of the players. Players want to make lots of money. If they can’t get there with talent, they will get there by being bigger, stronger, faster, crazier, more intense, more blood-thirsty. The NHLPA wants their numbers to stay high so they can remain strong within the NHL.
Does anyone else out there get the feeling that the NHL is a fundamentally flawed game? A new order must arise.
The first part of this new order could be a drastic, but in my opinion, effective step – The a lifetime ban of the next ten serious offenders. I am certain that Todd Bertuzzi would have been convicted of a criminal offence were his actions not during a game. Just because they happened in game does not justify the lack of public action against him. It wouldn’t take long before players figure out that they could lose their livelihood because they are stupid, once. 10 such cases would likely be enough to reduce those offences to a bare minimum, a manageable number per year. Currently, the number of offenders is not manageable.
Would this rule make a difference?
Well, if it was started a month ago, I believe it would. The NHL would have lost Todd Bertuzzi, Wade Belak, and Mark Messier. Or, if this rule was in place since 1993, roughly the last 10 years, we would have lost at least the following: Tie Domi, Dale Hunter, Gordie Dwyer, Tony Granato, Andre Roy, Matt Johnson, Owen Nolan, Ruslan Salei, Scott Niedermeyer, and even potentially Scott Stevens, thinking of his hit on Ron Francis. Note the number of Canadians, please. Yes, 10 out of 12. We haven’t even including the events of the last few weeks in this rough count. Would we miss the vaste majority of these players? I highly doubt it.
Should not the seriousness of the resulting injury be considered when making such rulings?
That answer is the easiest one today. No. Any player willing to crassly, purposefully attack another player, intent on injuring them – a spearing, a stick to the head, or an attack from behind all satisfy me as the proper criteria for that phrase “attempt to injure” – should be banned for life from NHL competition. They are clearly not stable enough to play.
The NHLPA would never allow this, at least not without a fight. That is another debate for another time. But, this is a solution which would potentially address many problems at once.
– John Wiens –