So much right. And so much wrong.
In the past week, the National Hockey League has shown us both its faces. The infectious joy of young Cole Caufield after scoring not once but twice in overtime. The contorted visage of Tom Wilson as he grabs Artemi Panarin by the hair and slams him to the ice.
The young, fast Ottawa Senators taking it to the Canadiens – and three separate fights in the Washington-Rangers game Wednesday night, all of them starting one second after the puck drop. Sidney Crosby scoring from a crouch with a wicked, precise shot – and so much stick work on the ice at Madison Square Garden that it looked like a mass swordfight.
The Department of Player Safety completely, outrageously refusing to do its job, handing Wilson a token $5,000 fine when the man shouldn’t be playing NHL hockey again until October, if ever – and the Rangers firing team president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton, neither of whom were on board with the organization’s statement condemning the decision from Player Safety.
We’re told the two men were fired because the impatient Jim Dolan, who is not the best owner in the business, wasn’t happy with their rebuild and that the differences over the statement weren’t the reason the two top hockey executives were let go with three games left in the season.
In our humble opinion, that is bullshit. Maybe Davidson and Gorton were going to get the chop anyway but why now?
In any case, the Rangers melodrama is no more than a sidelight to the main event. That was on ice in New York, where events devolved to the point where Lars Eller was out there duking it out. Yes, that Lars Eller, compelled by the bone-headed, gravel-brained stupidity of the NHL code to risk his knuckles and his noggin in support of … Tom Wilson, who in a court of law could have been found guilty of attempted murder on the ice.
There was worse. Somehow, former NHL players Marc Methot, Anthony Stewart and Mark Messier all found ways to praise Tom Wilson and the Capitals. Methot and Stewart by indicating that’s how the game should be played, Messier by questioning the way the Rangers were built – without enough goons to respond to Wilson’s attack.
Listening aghast to Stewart on Sportsnet, my reaction was that the man should have been fired on the spot.
And yet, it goes on. And on. And on.
A very long time ago, in April of 1976, Marc Tardif (a player who was one of my favourites with the Habs before he joined the Nordiques franchise in the WHA) was hit in the back of the head by one Rick Jodzio of the Calgary Cowboys. Jodzio then punched Tardif repeatedly as he lay helpless on the ice – a scene not unlike what happened in New York with Wilson Tuesday. Tardif suffered permanent brain damage.
Before that, there was the egregious Bobby Clarke breaking Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle with a vicious, two-handed smash. Matt Cooke stomping on Erik Karlsson’s Achilles. Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Steve Moore – an assault supported by so much of the hockey establishment.
The Department of Player Safety was supposed to make things better. It was supposed to police this game, to make it safer for the players and more palatable for an audience wider than the Legion Hall in Moose Jaw.
It has failed. Miserably. The mess at Madison Square Garden Wednesday was the direct result of George Parros and Patrick Burke simply refusing to do their jobs. It was the direct result of Colin Campbell keeping his brutal thumb on player safety rulings and it was the direct result of Gary Bettman, far and away the most powerful man in hockey, also refusing to do his job.
Bettman could put a stop to all this in five minutes. He could fire Campbell, Parros and Burke. He could make clear that the league will be ruled by speed and skill not, not by violence and a willingness to condone any level of brutality.
And Donald Fehr could help. The overwhelming majority of the players in the NHL are not goons. So why is the NHLPA being run for the benefit of Tom Wilson and his ilk, not for Connor McDavid and Artemi Panarin and Sid Crosby and Mitch Marner and Cole Caufield.
Ask yourself this – have you ever said to a buddy, “Hey, Tom Wilson’s going to be playing at the Bell Centre tonight. Let’s shell out $500 for seats in the reds so we can go watch him!”
Hell, no. You say, “Hey, Alex Ovechkin’s going to be playing at the Bell Centre tonight.”
And yet – and yet. The league is run for Tom Wilson, not for his Hall of Fame teammate.
Over and over, we get the same old excuses. “It’s part of the fabric of the game,” says the regrettable Young Sheldon, coach of the Maple Leafs, after he sends Wayne Simmonds out to pound Alex Edler, knowing that according to the code of the NHL Edler is expected to take his beating, risking the possibility that by the time he’s 50 he won’t recognize his own children – because the code.
Imagine what would happen to a power forward in the NBA who slammed Steph Curry to the floor headfirst, then repeatedly slammed his face on the hardwood, then punched him a half-dozen times while he was down. That power forward would be gone forever. So would a linebacker in the NFL who did that to Aaron Rodgers, or a rugby player, or any player in any sport not controlled by the halfwit trolls who run hockey.
Instead, we get serious commentators nodding their heads in approval, like it’s all about this being a tough sport. Listen, my father was a boxer who had over 70 fights as a pro. I know from tough. He was fighting men who were trained to give and take and fight within the rules of boxing. How is Tom Wilson showing his toughness by taking on Artemi Panarin? That’s chickenshit. That’s cowardly. That’s Rick Jodzio. That’s Don Cherry, acting tough and turtling every time he’s challenged.
Tom Wilson belongs in jail. Gary Bettman, Colin Campbell, George Parros and Patrick Burke should be fired today, along with most of the analysts on Sportsnet and countless others.
It won’t happen. The NHL is a sick league and for this sickness, there is no vaccine in sight.