It’s all so drearily familiar.
Player goes berserk on the ice. Someone is injured. While the injured player is down, his teammates try to get at the offender. The guilty party pleads his innocence. His coach defends him to the max. Fans of the team with the injured player demand justice. Fans of the other team insist it was a “hockey play” and that the guy with murder on his mind was just “finishing his check.”
It’s all so familiar – and so sickening.
By now you know the scene. Canadiens up 4-2 on the Winnipeg Jets in the first game of their second-round playoff series. With the net empty, Winnipeg gets one back to make it 4-3.
The puck drifts toward the Winnipeg net. Young Jake Evans (who has been so effective as the Canadiens ousted the Maple Leafs and kept the momentum going against the Jets) chases it down, skates behind the net and goes for the wraparound, a routine empty-net goal.
At least it should have been routine.
But here comes Mark Scheifele like a bat out of Hades, with mayhem on his mind. There is no hesitation, no attempt to get at the puck, nothing but a full-speed, headlong, predatory assault with an elbow aimed at Evans’s head.
Evans drops like he’s been hit with a sledgehammer and lies unmoving on the ice. Winnipeg’s Nikolai Ehlers, to his credit, signals for more medical help. Scheifele goes on acting berserk, like a man who has ingested something and is completely out of control. Shea Weber tries to get at him and is held back. Dr. David Mulder is escorted onto the ice.
Scheifele is dealt with appropriately by the on-ice officials: a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
And it begins. The wait for the NHL Department of Player Safety to actually do something do justify its existence.
Here’s the irony: If you work for NHL Player Safety and you do your job, you have no job to do.
If George Parros was doing his job, Evans would not be injured. We would not be waiting to hear if the young man is out indefinitely with a concussion. We wouldn’t be awaiting word of Scheifele’s suspension, because he wouldn’t have lost his mind in the first place.
But the moment Parros handed a $5,000 fine to Washington’s Tom Wilson for an incident that should have drawn a 20-game suspension, the floodgates were opened in the run-up to the playoffs.
We’re not even halfway through the postseason now and we’ve already had at least three major incidents: Nazem Kadri’s hit on Justin Faulk, Ryan Reaves on Ryan Graves and now Scheifele on Evans – and I would count at least one other, Reaves hitting Ryan Suter from behind and driving him face-first into the goalpost during the Knights first-round series against the Wild.
There have probably been a dozen others I have missed, when there shouldn’t be even one. Yet the clearest indication that the players do not accept even the slap-on-the-wrist punishment they receive is Kadri’s decision to appeal his suspension yet again, this time to an independent arbitrator, after Commissioner Gary Bettman upheld it Monday, a day before Scheifele’s hit on Evans.
The NHL is in need of some kind of severe shock treatment. In civilian life outside the rink, Scheifele would be in jail now and he would be lucky to escape a prison term for aggravated assault. Maybe that’s what it’s going to take. Or suspensions for a half-season, a full season or more. Whatever it takes to put an end to the cycle of violence.
The hope is that Scheifele will draw at least a five-game suspension. For what he did, five games aren’t nearly enough – but few observers of the Department of Player Safety would be shocked if there’s no suspension at all and he gets away with a $5,000 fine.
The bland reaction of the Hockey Night in Canada crew to the Scheifele hit is another indication of a culture gone wrong. Chris Cuthbert, who was once a very good play-by-play man, called it a “collision,” as though Scheifele happened to run into Evans by accident. On Twitter, Mike Commodore blamed Evans for not keeping his head up.
As a first very timid step, everyone connected with the league has to stop blaming the victim. The responsibility to stop the head-hunting and general mayhem rests with the instigators, not with those on the receiving end, period. Whether his head was up or down wouldn’t have helped Evans one bit. With Scheifele bearing down on him at that speed, he had no time to avoid the hit or protect himself in any way.
The Scheifele hit on Evans was so outrageous, the word sickening doesn’t cover it. After a pretty terrific game with lots of skating, plenty of hitting and scoring and drama, Scheifele wrecked it all with one elbow to the head.
Among many other things, it was industrial-grade idiocy in terms of his own team – if the Jets are to go anywhere this postseason, they need him in the lineup. Scheifele led his team in scoring this year with 21 goals and 42 assists for 63 points. Already down a game to the Canadiens, Winnipeg will likely face the task of trying to win this series without their offensive leader.
Yet even Paul Maurice, the coach whose team was hurt most by Scheifele’s stupidity, did little but make excuses for an inexcusable act. “When you’re backchecking to killing an empty-net play,” Maurice said, “you’re coming at full speed. Mark stopped skating, he kept his arms in (!) but it’s a heavy, heavy hit. There’s no doubt about that. I’m sure the league will have its opinion.”
Just once, I would like to hear a coach say, “we don’t condone that kind of hockey. On top of whatever the league decides to do, we’re going to suspend his sorry ass for 10 games for making the (fill in team name) look bad on national television.”
It will never happen. In reference to his own misguided missile, Ryan Reaves, Knights coach Pete DeBoer called Reaves the cleanest player he’s ever seen at his position – this after serious incidents perpetrated by Reaves in back-to-back games.
The other troublesome aspect of Scheifele’s action is that he quite literally seemed out of his mind. His eyes were wild, he seemed to have no real concept of what he was doing or why – and it started well before the hit on Evans. From at least the beginning of the second period, Scheifele was headhunting all over the ice.
Scheifele had already taken a foolish penalty late in the third period with his team trailing, 4-2. Had the Canadiens scored on that power play, it would have been over and Evans wouldn’t have taken that hit.
Perhaps it involved nothing more than a couple of Red Bulls between periods, or maybe the nine-day rest allowed too much aggression to build up but the NHL needs to take a hard look at why a player without a lengthy record of such behaviour acted as he did.
Then they need to suspend the big jerk until Christmas.