Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The NHL's magic moment

It's official: I've hit the point in the season where I'm returning to GameCenter Live (and now Versus) to watch playoff contending hockey.  I find that I watch a ton of other teams early in the season out of sheer excitement that the season has started, but the novelty wears off as I settle in for the long haul with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Then, once the reality of April tee times for the Boys in Union Blue settles in, my eyes start wandering once again.  Don't get me wrong - I'll watch the CBJ through to the bitter end, but it's now clear that the end will indeed be bitter.

It started on Friday night, when I watched a Vancouver game just for the hell of it (and yes, they're still a very good team) and then hit hard last night when I caught the Detroit-Pittsburgh game.  Sure, the game itself was entertaining.  Pittsburgh - sans something like 40% of its payroll - went up 4-1 on Detroit entering the third period only to fall apart, let the game tie up, muddle through overtime and pull the game out in the shootout.  But one couldn't watch that game and not catch wind of the dialogue surrounding the suspension of Matt Cooke for the balance of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

The Cooke suspension, in my mind, is the capstone to the myriad of events and injuries that have taken place since Pens captain Sidney Crosby got blindsided to the head in the Winter Classic.  We've seen Crosby take another hit and countless other players receive gruesome headshots (including the Blue Jackets' Fedor Tyutin, who was rocked by a flying Matt Cooke, and R.J. Umberger, who took a forearm shiver to the back of the head courtesy of the Bruins' Brad Marchand) since that point.  The late, legendary enforcer Bob Probert's brain was examined by researchers at Boston University; it was shown that Probert had developed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a stunning piece of news that rocked the hockey world (past and current).  With each development, the drumbeat of tweets, radio comments, TV talking head angst, blog posts and newspaper columns grew.  When was the National Hockey League going to take this issue of head shots and concussions seriously?

The NHL's General Managers gathered in Palm Beach, Florida just last week to discuss a host of issues related to the state of the game - including the hot potato of head shots.  The league offices pre-empted the dialogue to a degree, announcing a new protocol for the in-game handling of players who were believed to have had a concussion.  (Why the league felt that a bunch of retired ex-players were sufficient to staff a working group on player safety - effectively shutting out the NHL Players Association, which is made up of the men who both give and receive the hits on a nightly basis - is beyond me, though.)

Clearly, there was no unanimity of opinion on this matter at The Breakers Resort.  You had some GM luddites who want to keep the game as rough and tumble as ever.  You also had some like Montreal's Pierre Gauthier (whose owner presumably found the religion once all hell broke loose after Boston's Zdeno Chara broke Max Pacioretty's neck) or Pittsburgh's Ray Shero (whose owner was denounced as a hypocrite for decrying a particularly thuggish evening on Long Island while harboring cheap-shotter Cooke on his roster), who were calling for a hard-line approach to this whole line of player behavior.  Even the Blue Jackets' GM, Scott Howson, offered this commentary from the meetings:

(Strangely, Howson didn't address the open-ice hit on Umberger that happened the night prior to his interview.  Nor would the gist of his comments have affected the discipline on Brad Marchand one iota.  Makes no sense, but I digress.)

In the end, Howson nailed the spirit of the room in Palm Beach.  The GM's called for stricter refereeing of boarding and charging - as well as tougher treatment by the league on repeat offenders of such cheap shots.  And the league offices noticed.  With the first real test of the GMs' new, steely resolve coming from a (surprise!) Cooke hit on the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh on national television, the Bettman administration took their cue from the GMs and came down hard.  As they should have.  (Kudos to Shero and the Penguins organization for taking the tough news as one would hope - I honestly believe that the Pens ownership has finally seen the light.)

Oh, but we'd love to have you give it a try, you poor NFL fan.
Today's NHL hockey can be one incredible game. (H/T to Darren Rovell)
But I'm going to go a step further and suggest that the GMs meeting and the NHL's subsequent change in stance is not enough.  You see, I think the NHL (but perhaps not its fans nor all of its media and bloggers) recognizes that the league is coming up on a truly magic moment, and they need to capitalize on it.  Consider this:
If both of these things come to pass, the NHL will have only college football and Major League Baseball to compete with in the sports enthusiast's eye.  If that happens, I fully expect two things:
  1. Viewership and enthusiasm for the National Hockey League will rise dramatically.  It's a proven fact that the present-day American public will watch compelling hockey - the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was the highest-rated hockey game since the 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid.  Throw the sports media complex (ESPN, sports talk radio, etc.) into hockey in even a middling way, and you're going to see a LOT of new hockey fans in short order.  
  2. Outside scrutiny of the National Hockey League will rise at least as much.  You're going to see a lot of people who are not used to NHL hockey watch the game and likely be shocked/stunned at the brutal hits and circus-clown fights that the league allows these days.  And a lot of those people will talk, write, blog and tweet about what they see.  A lot of that communication will make the Chara/Pacioretty dialogue seem like a parlor game.  Sure, the NFL is a rough league (and certainly resulting in its share of brain injuries), but the NHL is a league where the brutality is easier to point out and talk about.  I mean, these players throw forrearm shivers in front of God and everyone.  They literally stop play to drop gloves and throw punches.  This is different than football, and people are going to talk about these less-favorable differences - much more than "hockey purists" will like.
What I find most interesting is that while much of the hockey establishment embraces a level of violence including (fighting and rough play - though I have yet to hear anyone defend cheap shots...if the player is not on their team), the public appears OK with a violence-free game of hockey.  As Ross Bernstein, the author of "The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL," told ESPN's John Buccigross in 2007:
"Arguably the best case for the anti-fighting lobby is the Olympics, and deservedly so. After all, they are 99.9 percent altercation-free and extremely successful in the TV ratings department, a pretty good indicator of success. Take the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City for instance. Team USA made a riveting run to beat the hated Russians in the semis only to wind up losing to rival Canada in the gold-medal game. The Herb Brooks-led Americans were attempting to become the first gold-medal winners since Brooks' fabled "Miracle on Ice" team of 1980. They came up short, but the interest was there on the home front. 
What is even more amazing about this story though, is that not one player from Team USA dropped his gloves during the entire tournament. There was tons of excitement, drama and action, all hallmarks of great games, yet not one fight. The players knew that if they fought, they would receive a game misconduct plus a one-game suspension. The stakes were simply too high."
See?  The popularity of Olympic hockey surfaces once again.  People WILL watch a cleaner, less violent game if the quality of play is high - and there is no higher quality of hockey than what you find in the NHL on a nightly basis.  So why not embrace the possibility of growing the game on the basis of skill, speed, drive and passion of today's hockey players - and less on the cartoony Broad Street Bullies personas of days past?

My point is simple (even if it took a while to get to it!): The NHL can play a game similar to the Olympics or the European game if they want.  It can be a cleaner, less violent game.  It can grab casual fans and, hopefully, keep them long past the lockouts of those other sports.  It's started down this road with the Cooke suspension.  Whether it will keep going will be an interesting question to follow.

The NHL can seize its magic moment.  Will it?

(Parting note: The best piece I've seen written on this whole subject of violence, concussions et al is Adam Proteau's piece in the March 21, 2011 edition of The Hockey News.  Sadly, the piece is not available online.  THN should bring it out from behind the pay-to-view firewall as a public service - it's that good in overviewing the problems and offering a handful of common sense solutions.)

1 comment:

  1. This year has been an awakening for the NHL that violence needs to be reigned in. Hopefully the league will be more in line with just playing the game in time to take advantage of the NBA and NHL meltdowns.

    The dude holding the sign - why is he smiling? Oy yeah, he's an American and therefore believes the fastest game on the planet is 'boring' to watch. Maybe someone should go 'Hockey' on him before the league completes its overhaul. But I'm Canadian, so what else do you expect me to say?

    Here's to hoping the for the total cancellation of both the NBA and NFL seasons next year. I'm not a big fan anyway, and the quality of Hockey, unlike other sports, gets better and better every year. I watch in awe at the speed and the skill not to mention the work ethic and 'putting the team 1st' mentality that is absent in other leagues.

    NBA players - the 'Princesses' that they are, are not going to take too well to having their
    slaries reduced. Too many premadonas and over-inflated egos with a sense of entitlement to take this news well.

    NHL - don't know how their players are going to react. Don't care much either - as long as they don't play next year that's all I care about.

    GO PUCK!!!


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