Artemi Panarin is the most courageous player in the National Hockey League, bar none.
Panarin has stood up to Vladimir Putin in support of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned by an undercover hit squad working for Russia’s FSB spy agency. If you don’t think that takes courage, you don’t know the meaning of the word.
Having missed part of the season following a disinformation campaign back home aimed at discrediting him, Panarin returned to the ice – only to be taken out by the NHL’s premier thug, Tom Wilson.
“We all saw it,” said Rangers coach David Quinn. “There are lines that can’t be crossed in this game. There’s just zero respect for the game in general. You got one of the star players in this league now that could have gotten seriously, seriously hurt in that incident. You all saw what happened, and it happens again and again with him. Totally unnecessary.”
If you’re the type who sees conspiracies everywhere, you might believe that Alex Ovechkin (who has continued to support Putin, to his eternal disgrace) put Wilson up to it. But Ovechkin can fight his own battles and Wilson doesn’t need encouragement to go out of his way to injure other players – he does it all the time.
And he gets away with it. The NHL has been down this road so many times that we can no longer feign surprise.
The Department of Player Safety has handed Tom Wilson a $5,000 fine (the equivalent of a parking ticket for most of us) for trying to kill someone on the ice? Well, of course they did. What did you expect? A serious attempt to protect the players? C’mon. This is the NHL we’re talking about.
Except that this time, following the mayhem Wilson visited on the New York Rangers and the ludicrous fine, there was serious pushback, led by the Rangers themselves. With reason.
The minute of mayhem Wilson visited on Panarin and Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich was sheer madness. Slamming their heads on the ice, pulling Panarin’s hair, punching them from behind while they were down – it was UFC garbage, all the worse because of the unyielding ice surface and the fact that neither of the Rangers was able to defend himself.
A reasonable suspension for Wilson would have been the balance of the regular season and the entirety of the playoffs at the very least. This man is a serial offender, the most dangerous player in the league, an individual who has zero respect for anything in the game.
Under the circumstances, it would have been appalling if Wilson got three games for his behaviour. Instead, he got what amounts to no punishment at all.
Inevitably, there have been calls to fire NHL Head of Player Safety George Parros, the former thug (and former Hab) who is nominally in charge of meting out punishment. And indeed, Parros should go, because if he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Hockey Ops boss Colin Campbell, he doesn’t belong in the job – nor does Senior Director Player Safety Patrick Burke, now the stand-in for his father in the Department of Ignoring Bad Stuff That Happens.
But the cancer in the National Hockey League is Colin Campbell. He should have gone when his crazy emails on the subject of Matt Cooke and Marc Savard surfaced years ago. He should never have been in that position in the first place. And yet year after year, the good old boy network run by Campbell and Toronto war room boss Mike Murphy runs in this league into the ground.
Nor is the NHLPA any better. The Players Association ought to be protecting its players. After all, the overwhelming majority of the players on every team aren’t thugs – and yet the NHLPA acts always in support of the minority that puts everyone else at risk.
And if you didn’t know where Wilson and the Capitals are coming from, you need only to check the tweet from the Capitals official Twitter site saying the club “chooses violence” with a graphic showing the hulking Wilson living inside the heads of his opponents. That alone should have drawn a six-figure fine for the club in addition to Wilson’s lengthy suspension.
But this is the NHL, where the sick culture promoted by Don Cherry for decades still holds sway. All that should have been swept away with the old millennium. It wasn’t for many reasons but the foremost is the structure of the league itself, with Gary Bettman at the top. Bettman isn’t a hockey guy, he’s a money guy. When it comes to evaluating his lengthy tenure as the most powerful commissioner in the history of the NHL, Bettman will get credit for presiding over headlong expansion and a dramatic increase in the value of the league’s television contracts.
The hockey side is another matter. The fact that Bettman has left the hockey aspect to Campbell and a host of others is directly responsible for Tom Wilson’s carte blanche to injure whomever he pleases. When this stuff happens, Colin Campbell sits back and cackles, the Department of Player Safety does nothing, and the mayhem goes on.
Right now, Geoff Molson and every other owner in the game should be lining up in support of the New York Rangers. Even the worst club in the league has players it needs to protect.
Molson has been down this road before. He had barely taken over the Canadiens from George Gillett Jr. when Zdeno Chara rammed Max Pacioretty’s head into a stanchion at the Bell Center in March of 2011. Molson spoke out and was quickly slapped down by the league.
This is the time, however, when the Board of Governors needs to take the lead if Bettman won’t. Insist that Wilson be handed a suspension that fits the crime – in his case, a lifetime ban would not be too much.
Act now, when it might be possible to prevent Wilson going after Cole Caufield, or Connor McDavid or (heaven forbid) Auston Matthews. There is little doubt that had Wilson slammed Matthews into the ice instead of Panarin, the penalty would have been very different.
Which is part of the problem. There is no fairness or predictability or deterrent in the way the NHL and the Department of Player Safety hand out discipline. It’s a sick joke and one day, it’s going to get someone killed or seriously injured.
The way to stop it is to send Colin Campbell away with a golden parachute, fire the entire Department of Player Safety and start over. Failing that, every player in the league will be in jeopardy every time he steps on the ice.