Forget that John Scott is a marginal skater that would have difficulty holding a roster spot on a minor league team. Forget that Patrick Kaleta has done little more in his NHL career than work to damage the health and well-being of his opponents. Forget that the Buffalo Sabres goaltender spoke passionately two-and-a-half years ago about protecting star hockey players from the dangerous elements of the game that don’t belong. Just remember Loui Eriksson being assisted off the ice as result of a play that was totally unneccessary. Same for Dustin Penner, Dan Boyle, Niklas Kronwall and Nathan Gerbe. It’s not even November 1, and the NHL has already handed out more than five suspensions, all or most for hits from behind or contact with the head.
What is happening to hockey?
I say this not as a reactionary type, because quite honestly if you go back to seasons past you would find the position has not changed. If the NHL does not do something about this, they will have a coroner removing a player from the ice. Imagine the economic impact of that. The NHL is not the only culpable party in this. While appealing a suspension at the request of Patrick Kaleta, which is his right under the current CBA, who represents Jack Johnson, also a member of the NHLPA? When does this conflict of interest become too apparent? It actually already did when the Players Association swung for the fences for Todd Bertuzzi while providing little to no assistance to Steve Moore, the guy he maimed. Moore had his career ended, his health destroyed, and his credibility attacked for simply trying to hold responsible Bertuzzi along with a culture that punishes the victim while only looking to rationalize the need for the offender.
Did anybody enjoy any of these hits. The Boston Bruins alone have already lost Marc Savard (career-ending), Nathan Horton (never quite the same) and now Loui Eriksson. The Sabres have made it a habit to cry foul whenever one of their own gets incapacitated. Ryan Miller spoke like he was describing the fall of Rome after being hit by Milan Lucic, while Lindy Ruff initiated a bench-clearing brawl after Chris Drury got his bell rung, but when the offender is on their bench it’s nothing but radio silence. Patrick Kaleta is the easy target, and Steve Ott simply hasn’t been on the roster long enough for his normal brand of nonsense, John Scott however is new to the realm of supplemental discipline.
The self-proclaimed policeman started in the preseason during a Leafs game when he decided a fight with a significantly smaller and typically non-combative Phil Kessel was the appropriate response to a player on his own team losing a fight which he himself started. Corey Tropp was dropped by fellow minor-league meathead Jamie Devane, which then, at least in his mind, justified John Scott knocking out whoever lined up next to him. David Clarkson was suspended 10 games for simply leaving the bench to get involved. This is the logic of an NHL fighter today. Not a cheap shot, not a headshot, not even a disrespectful move, and Scott is now required under the unwritten and ever-changing code to fight a top-20 scorer that wants nothing to do with him.
The hockey code is like an excuse for late homework; it just kind of gets applied as situations come up. At some point in time there probably was an unwritten rule about respect and accountability, but today it looks more like the “reason” column of a government expense report. If a player throws a perfectly clean hit, he must then stand and fight. If a player on one team throws a dirty hit, two entirely unrelated players must then come onto the ice and have a fight. It’s like a catch-all statement that vindicates all of the stupidity that occurs in the game.
If you score four goals, you better not celebrate or you will have to “watch your back” in future meetings. If you score too many goals as a team, you are being disrespectful to your opponent and now hits and plays that were deemed dirty previously are now justifiable under “the code”. Essentially you can do whatever you like, as long as you can find some plausible (or implausible) reason to defend it. It will be followed in the media by a speech, usually from an ex-player, about how there is no respect in the game anymore and these players are simply asking for it. When talk of change comes up, well it seems “the code” prevents that from happening, too. It would be disrespectful to the legends of games past.
The culture of this game suggests that this will not change at all in the next few months, years, or most likely ever. In spite of what some from past eras like to spout as fact, little has changed since the night Eddie Shore paralyzed and nearly killed Ace Bailey. Respect was never in the DNA of hockey, except maybe in the minds of some or all. Scour through video of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and you will find little evidence that the NHL was anything more than a drunken bar scene, with stick-swinging fights and raucous brawls. The game is played with passion and intensity, and most of the participants seem like good guys, no dispute from this corner on that. But there are a lot of drunk drivers and murderers that are otherwise good guys if you discount their actions in a moment of passion or lack of thought.
The league must decide at some point whether it wants to join the ranks of the 20th century and showcase skill and talent, or if it wants to remain in the era of its creation where the bigger guy always wins, regardless of skill. I long for the day that Sidney Crosby and the like can be extraordinary NHL players, and not have to fight through layers of garbage on the ice just to pick up two points in a win. Mario Lemieux retired one time for this, and only diluted his statement by returning to a game that had become further watered down. Shouldn’t the best league in the world be showcasing the best players, and not playing to a culture that seems to only celebrate some of the worst? It would be like football making stars out of the offensive linemen. Don’t the fans and the game deserve more than that?