October 21, 2014

NHL’s culture of violence hurts the players and the game

Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom was assessed a match penalty for his cross-check of Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverley at the end of the Caps 4-3 loss in Game Three Monday night. Tuesday evening, NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan upheld the automatic suspension that came with the match penalty; Backstrom must miss Thursday’s Game Four, putting the Capitals behind the eight-ball for what could be the pivotal game of the series.

Today, the Caps took a slightly strange — but bold — step nonetheless and issued a press release on Backstrom’s suspension:

We disagree with the NHL’s decision to suspend Nicklas Backstrom.  This has been a competitive and physical series, and we do not understand why a suspension was imposed in this case while other incidents in this series have not been reviewed. Our singular focus now is on Game 4, and we look forward to the energy that our great fans provide.

The statement is carefully worded to avoid further discipline or fine by the league offices, but the message is clear: “We’re not happy with the way this series is being officiated.”

Nor should they be. The on-ice officials in this series have been wildly inconsistent. Acts that are whistled in the first period for penalties go unrestricted in the third period. Blatant punches to player’s heads are being ignored. Players are getting hit in the head and losing their helmets with no calls. Trips after the whistle. Cheap shots. Dirty shots.

If you’re a Caps fan it might be tough to see, but it’s not that the refs are against Washington — they’re missing (or, more accurately, allowing) plays both ways. You can take all the umbrage with Shanahan for upholding the Backstrom suspension, but he was just following the letter of the rule. If the on-ice official hadn’t injected himself into the conversation with his overzealous match penalty in the first place, Backstrom’s cross-check would likely not have even been reviewed.

Much. much worse happened in this game and series, with no attention to it.

If you’re a traditionalist, you’re going to chalk much of this up to “playoff hockey,” but I’m of the belief the league can — and should — be better than this. But they’re not.

It’s happening all around in these playoffs. It started in Game One of the Nashville-Detroit series, when Predators’ defenseman Shea Weber blatantly slammed Wings’ forward Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the end glass twice after the final horn. Weber was given a two-minute roughing and fined $2,500.

Tuesday night, Raffi Torres leapt at mid-ice and tried to hurl himself through Marian Hossa. It was a disgusting display of lack of respect for his fellow player. But the on-ice officials didn’t even see the play, which sent Hossa to the hospital! There was no penalty call, nothing.

Last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided they hated the Philadelphia Flyers so much that they didn’t care about playing their Game Three, rather they spent 60 minutes trying to decapitate anyone wearing orange.

Andrew Shaw, Byron Bitz, Carl Hagelin and Matt Carkner have all been disciplined by the league so far as well, and we’re not even out of the first round yet. Brendan Shanahan has been the busiest person in the entire NHL the past two weeks.

The lack of respect for fellow players in the NHL seems to have reached epidemic proportions. The league has always peddled violence as a gate attraction. It’s the only league that not only sanctions fighting, but darn near encourages it. But as the players grow bigger and faster, the league hasn’t caught up.

In the 1970’s, the NHL had a real image problem. It was viewed by most as spectacle, rather than sport. Line brawls, bench-clearing brawls, stick swinging, head-hunting; it was a dangerous game played by desperate men. Fortunately, some within the game had enough insight to make enough rule changes to eliminate the most dangerous elements of the game. Automatic suspensions for leaving the bench and third-man-in to fights helped curb a lot of the gratuitous violence and made it a better game.

The time has come, once again, for the league to make some sweeping changes. The rules changes the last couple of years have been a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough. The Department of Player Safety is a good step, but more is needed. It needs to be run independently from the NHL, as a separate entity, with non-NHL employees making the decisions. The league and union submit to independent binding arbiters in cases of fiscal or legal disputes, they should do the same for disciplinary hearings.

This issue isn’t unique to hockey. The NFL went through the same thing recently. In an effort to cut down on concussions, the league and union collectively bargained for more stringent rules and penalties for players leading with their helmets to make hits. These rules and penalties have dramatically cut down on the instances of these types of plays. It’s not a perfect system, but the NFL and NFLPA finally came to the conclusion the game needed their players to survive for the league to survive.

The NHL would be wise to follow in the NFL’s footsteps.

Better trained on-ice officials would be a first step. An in-arena video official would be another. Legitimately legislating “contact away from the puck” rules. More stringent suspensions for violent and repeat offenders. Doubling fines to players and fining teams and owners directly for violations from their players.

All these things need to be considered before someone gets paralyzed or killed out there.

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Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. Scott Gater says:

    There was a great article the other day in the Globe and Mail about the level of violence in the playoff’s this year. They brought up the point that last years Cup came down to Vancouver ( went with skilled players) vs Boston ( played with intimidation) and how this year many teams went the Boston route, adding more physical players. Even Vancouver “had” to add some more physical guys to their roster at the end of the trading period to be able to react in the play offs. How things would have been different if Vancouver had won the cup,..
    I agree that the level of violence and the lack of proper calls on the ice is at an all time high. The original rational for the 2 ref system was to allow for those calls behind the play to be called, and that does not seem to happen. I think it’s great that Torres got suspended for the hit on Hossa. Whether or not that sends a message to the rest of the players, that we will have to wait and see.

    I’m an old enough hockey fan to have lived through the goon age of the 70’s and early 80’s, the time when fights and brawls were commonplace. I want to see skill, not fights and perhaps it will have to be the corporate sponsors of hockey who pressure the league to change their attitude in order to keep the fan base, at least here in the US.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Scott, thanks for the comment. The “copycat” phenomenon was something I hadn’t considered. It’s a pretty common theme to pattern your team after one that’s had success, logical that we might be seeing a spike because of it.

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