Is there a business anywhere run as badly as the National Hockey League?
Don’t answer that. This is a rhetorical conversation.
You’ve heard about the league’s latest black eye, not to mention concussion, lacerations and broken neck. Those were the season-ending injuries sustained by Steve Moore of the Avalanche after he was sucker-punched from behind and driven face first into the ice Monday by Todd Bertuzzi of the Canucks.
Bertuzzi attended a hearing with league vice president Colin Campbell in Toronto Wednesday afternoon. Campbell said beforehand through a spokesman that he has “no time frame on when a decision might be made” about Bertuzzi’s punishment, though the league said later than an announcement would be made Thursday morning. In the meantime, Bertuzzi’s suspended indefinitely.
Who wants to bet Campbell and the league will come up with a great response, something that will really clean up the game. Yeah, right.
Even if you put aside the labor situation the league has gotten itself into by its teams’ mismanaging their finances — a situation so dire that Sports Business News refers to it unironically as “NHL Armageddon 2004″ — and putting aside the clutching, grabbing, low-scoring style that has even turned off some die-hard fans, the NHL has managed, over time, to take the world’s fastest, most exciting skill game and turn itself into a minor league ignored by all but the most avid fans, lumped in with wrestling in the popular imagination.
The NHL has been blowing smoke about getting the fighting out of the game for as long as I can remember, and I’m not getting any younger, as we old guys like to say. So after, what, three decades of this initiative, were you at all surprised, even a tiny little bit, that something like the Bertuzzi attack on Moore happened? Of course not. It’s part of the culture of the league. Moore had put Markus Naslund of the Canucks out for three games with an open-ice hit earlier in the year, so he had to pay.
Well, sort of. The Canucks didn’t make him pay in the first game between the teams after the Naslund hit, which was a close one with commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance. They waited until they were getting blown out 9-2 late in the next game. Some culture.
Were you surprised when the Flyers and Senators reenacted “Gangs of New York” in their game in Philadelphia last week? Something about retribution there too. Five brawls broke out in the last two minutes of the game. Officials handed out a league-record 419 minutes in penalties. That sounds like a lot, but most of them were multiple penalties to the same guys with 1:45 or less left in the game. The real time assessed was 31 minutes, 32 seconds to 20 players.
I guess you’d have to be surprised if you believed the NHL’s promise to clean up on-ice violence four years ago, after Marty McSorley of the Bruins cracked Donald Brashear of the Canucks over the head with his stick two seconds before the end of a game, knocking him cold.
McSorley was suspended for a year, which effectively ended his career since he was at the end of the road anyway. Brashear? He had a seizure before regaining consciousness, then was out for a month with a concussion. He plays for the Flyers now, and he was penalized 34 minutes for instigating and participating in the first of those five brawls in the Senators game last week.
There was a lot of talk four years ago about the NHL finally cleaning up its act, finally doing something to stop the endless fighting that mars the league’s version of the sport — and is virtually absent from international hockey, college hockey, all hockey except the NHL and its minor leagues. It didn’t happen.
It’s apparently a vexing problem, trying to stop the fighting. Let me see if I can come up with an idea about how to do it. Here’s one: How about making it illegal? How about having a rule that says if you start a fight you’re out of this game and the next one on the first offense, this game and the next five on the second, this game and the rest of the season on the third?
Gee, that was hard.
Update: On Thursday morning, the NHL announced that Bertuzzi was suspended for the last 12 games of the season plus the playoffs, and that his eligibility for next season would be addressed later. Bertuzzi’s forfeited salary will be at least $501,926.39, according to the league. The Canucks, who will pay the forfeited amount into the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund, were also fined $250,000.
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