Monday, December 9, 2013

How Dion Phaneuf got me interested in the Winter Olympics

The whole NHL-Olympics thing baffles me.

I mean, here we are.  We have The Best League in the world for a genuinely great sport.  The league has created a playoff system that just screams passion and competition, and the regular season builds up to those playoffs like a crescendo every spring.  90-95% of the best players in the world play in this league.  This is the pinnacle.  It doesn't get any better.

Yet, strangely, the NHL world revolves around the Olympics.  I don't get it. 

Sure, I want the United States to do well.  I'm an American; I want to see my country clean up in gold medals.  But I don't see how a quadrennial tournament that upends the premier league's own schedule (and probably will affect the outcome of that schedule this season) is worthy of the attention it receives.
Truth be told, the hockey media obsession with the Olympics makes me think that more hockey writers are bored with the NHL than let on.  

Then again, the NHL isn't doing itself any favors.  Issues of head trauma aside (and while I still believe that the ridiculous speed and armor in today's game open players up to increased exposure for head trauma, I'm willing to grant that the formal scientific book is still out on the issue as I type), there's the whole combined issue of fighting and violence that continues to derail attention from that which, in my opinion, makes hockey so great.  

I split fighting and violence because I see them as separate issues.  Fighting, as I've repeatedly said, has been reduced to a clown show in today's NHL.  If the league still allows fighting in five years, I'll be surprised.  The league has a head trauma lawsuit breathing down its neck, and a ban on fighting would allow it to make a public statement while not really changing the game when you consider how marginalized fighting has become.  

Violence, on the other hand, is a foundational component of today's NHL culture.  The checks are harder, the hits more vicious.  Plus, violence allows for stuff like this:

Neal's knee to Marchand's head is inexcusable, but not entirely unexpected from the guy whose history we know so well.  A Grade A d-bag move.  I'd love to see him out of the league.  There's no need for crap like that.

Same goes for Shawn Thornton, who slewfooted Brooks Orpik and then knocked Orpik out cold in what I suppose could be considered a retaliatory move.  The sad irony of Thornton's move is that just last week he talked up how he stood by "The Code," that unwritten rulebook of conduct and manners.  And then he went and slewfooted Brooks Orpik and then knocked Orpik out cold this past weekend.  To quote Yahoo!'s Ryan Lambert, who I think nails it:
"The Code, in the end, is like how you hate when people cut you off in traffic, but then sometimes you do it to someone else, but it's OK because you're late and your boss yelled at you and eh, you weren't really even paying attention so what's that guy beeping about? Maybe if you just wave at him it'll all be fine."
(Please take a minute and read that linked article.  It's really quite strong.)

Of course, Lambert's opus followed some of the harshest hand-wringing I've seen in my years of writing this blog.  I mean, it was on real, real thick on Saturday night - and rightfully so.  There are no good guys in that sequence.  Maybe Marchand and Orpik, but only because they were the victims in their respective muggings.

A whole day of "I can't believe we allow this in hockey" from a lot of people whose writing I respect greatly kinda had me down on the sport on Sunday.   So after putting the kiddos to bed last night, I thought it wise to go for a palate-cleanser.  Find a game with appealing teams, competitive score, you know...a good Hockey Fan Game.

And so I turned on the Boston-Toronto game midway through.

Boston, surely chastened by the violence of the Pittsburgh game, would play it straight, right

Toronto, chastened by the mega-suspension for David Clarkson from the preseason, would play it straight, right?



Good Lord, Phaneuf.  Really?

For my immediate reaction, let's go to the Tweets:
And I turned off the game.  ENOUGH.

The stuff from this past weekend drives me crazy.

Look, I genuinely like the sport of hockey.  I enjoy watching good hockey being played, and this league CAN be the best in the world when it wants to be.  

I love watching highlight reel goals like Mark Letestu's alley oop feed to Brandon Dubinsky.

I love watching Sergei Bobrovsky stop a zillion shots in ten seconds.

I love watching Nick Foligno shoot a backhand, between the legs goal.

This is skill.  This is talent.  This is an exhibition of the best that the sport of hockey has to offer.  And there's no thuggery, no violence, no clown show.  That's what I want to see.

But the league isn't going to change.  NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly all but said so this morning:
If the money is rolling in, why would you change?  Simple: You wouldn't.  And so barring that lawsuit, I can't see anything else pushing the NHL off the dime.

(But I'd love to see Orpik file a civil suit against Thorton.)

And then it hit me...what I want - the best players playing top-level hockey in a cleanly-played environment - does actually exist.

It's the Winter Olympics. It should be the NHL, but it's the Olympics.

Oh wait.  I wrote all this before.

Bring on February.  

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