Maybe it’s time to suspend George Parros.
This is not a joke. The NHL Department of Player Safety has failed so many times, in so many situations, that it is clear Parros is not up to the task.
Either Parros himself does not care to make the ice somewhat safer for those who earn their living in a fast and dangerous sport, or he does not have the support from above, or both.
Whatever, the NHL version is like having a Department of Gladiator Safety in Rome to make sure the gladiators don’t give each other a tap on the head before they start decapitating each other.
Whatever it is, Parros has now failed one too many times. Same goes for his colleagues and apologists, especially Patrick Burke, son of the egregious Brian.
If the laughable one-game suspension handed out to the Flyers’ Matt Niskanen for breaking Brendan Gallagher’s jaw is not the last straw for the NHL, then there is no last straw and we might as well let them play with axes and swords.
This one was so bad that Jeff O’Neill, the O-Dog, the guy who might as well wear his Leafs jersey in the studio, that Jeff O’Neill said that the Niskanen hit should have drawn a three-game suspension at a minimum. When it’s so bad that even the Leafs cheerleaders are siding with the Canadiens, it’s bad.
No matter how many times you watch that hit, it’s impossible to understand how Niskanen wasn’t banned for the balance of this series at a minimum. Any real deterrent would have suspended him for at least the rest of the playoffs and the first five games next season.
It is ugly, vicious, delivered with intent to injure. There are crosschecks and there are crosschecks – the Patrice Brisebois variety were usually delivered to an opposing forward who had just scored on him. They were Brisebois’s attempt to act tough, and they wouldn’t break an egg.
This one could have broken more than Gallagher’s jaw. A bit lower and it might have shattered Gallagher’s larynx and we would have another Trent McCleary situation, a replay of the scary event on Jan. 20 that could have led to McCleary’s death on the ice at the Bell Center if not for the quick reaction of the Canadiens trainers and medical staff.
That incident 20 years ago, ironically, also involved the Flyers and a shot off the stick of Chris Therien. I was in the pressbox and the incident happened just to my left. If you were there, it’s not something you want to see again – but it was an accident, and accidents are going to happen. It’s the deliberately dangerous plays that need to be outlawed.
The crosscheck that injured Gallagher was deliberate, and it was hard. You don’t drop Brendan Gallagher with a friendly tap on the top of the helmet.
Niskanen is no saint. He has also been guilty of a stick to the face of one other than Sidney Crosby. I think we can all agree that sticks and skates are dangerous, and that if you’re not going to police Niskanen’s stick, or Matthew Tkachuk’s skate, then you have no reason to exist.
Rather than making it clear that such deliberate attempts to injure will not be tolerated, the message that was delivered was quite the opposite. Not only was the suspension absurd, it was inconsistent. Nazem Kadri (himself not the most delightful little angel in the league) got five games for a crosscheck that was less violent than Niskanen’s. Kadri had been getting away with stuff for years and his suspension was long overdue but when you see the two replays back-to-back, if Kadri got five games, then Niskanen should have drawn at least that many.
At some point, the fans have to let their feelings be known and it has to go beyond approving a suspension when your guy is the victim and complaining when he’s the aggressor. Never mind fairness to Gallagher, the smiling warrior who takes a beating and keeps on ticking. Or to the Canadiens, who are now faced with the task of winning two games against the top seed in the Eastern Conference without the player who is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the team.
The Department of Player Safety is supposed to be about deterrence. About simultaneously cleaning up the league’s image and making it less likely that players are going to suffer debilitating injuries through the negligence or sheer aggression of their NHLPA brethren.
The one-game suspension to Niskanen accomplishes nothing. If anything, it declares that the playoffs are open season on head hunting, that anything goes, that the slap on the wrist is the order of the day and that if there is to be a deterrent, the players are going to have to deliver it themselves.
You would not, in other words, want to be Claude Giroux or Jakub Voracek if the Canadiens find themselves behind late in tonight’s Game 6 and with nothing to lose. If the league won’t deliver the message, then the players will – and you get a descending spiral of violence and retribution which is precisely what player safety is supposed to prevent.
This is where we came in. Late in the 1998 season, I covered a Canadiens road trip to Washington and New York. During the game against the Capitals, Saku Koivu was in behind the net when a late-season Washington call-up went in behind the net and brought a vicious, two-handed chop down on the back of Koivu’s glove.
The shot happened to catch a spot where there was no padding, and Koivu – the most hard-luck player in the history of the CH – suffered a broken hand. During the next game, in New York against the Rangers, I happened to be sitting in the auxiliary press area next to Brian Burke, whose job it was to police such incidents and hand out suspensions.
We spent the better part of a period arguing about the slash to Koivu. Burke laughed it off, insisting that it was a hockey play, just one of those things, blah, blah, blah. I argued that it was a deliberate and dangerous act on the part of a borderline player and that it had cost the Canadiens the services of their captain on the eve of the playoffs.
Burke was unmoved. The playoffs began and the Canadiens managed to get by the Pittsburgh Penguins with Koivu joining them late in the series. But he was ineffective against Pittsburgh, and he still hadn’t really recovered the use of the hand when the Canadiens were swept in the second round by Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres.
Burke’s serene disregard for the safety of the players on the ice then is reflected by his son’s attitude now, and by George Parros and everyone else involved. I read an interview with Patrick Burke in which he was so cavalier about the criticism of the department that it was like sitting in that pressbox listening to Brian all over again.
Such attitudes are deeply ingrained in the good-old-boys network that still runs the NHL. The fact that Colin Campbell still has a job, years after the revelation of the egregious emails that should have gotten him fired, tells you all you need to know.
It means that Chris Lee (an official who is either biased or incompetent or both) can be assigned to work two games involving the Canadiens in a single playoff series. It means that the Toronto war room can be run by former Leafs coach Mike Murphy and that same war room can sign off on the absurd five-minute major and game misconduct handed to Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
The NHL is a league that has refused to grow up. While the NBA strikes out boldly into the 21st century, the NHL is still as stiff-necked and retrograde as it was when Clarence Campbell was touching off the Richard Riot.
I had high hopes for George Parros. I was impressed by the man during his short stint with the Canadiens. Like many of the league’s tough guys, Parros is a thoughtful, educated man. But his stint as Director of Player Safety has been a disaster and the Niskanen suspension may be the worst decision yet.
It’s high time the NHL cleaned house, from Colin Campbell on down. Either have a Department of Player Safety that actually cares about player safety – or disband it altogether.