NHL still putting out fires
League a magnet for controversy
STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
|The attention today is on the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty in the NHL. Last week, it was all about Trevor Gillies. What's next for the NHL? (QMI Agency/Eric Bolte)
What is it about hockey — and, in particular, the National Hockey League — that so lends itself to argument and dissection?
Hardly a week goes by without an apparent crisis point, a matter to debate, an end-of-the-world dispute of some kind, so much of it polarizing between fans and fans, media and media, critic and critic.
You don’t hear it in the other professional leagues. Not this much. Not this often. Not broken down with some so much white noise and minutia. Is it the Canadian in us? We like nothing better than to poke and prod ourselves and then interpret everything we find.
Every year, the game is wrong. Every year, we have to change the rules. Every year, we have to tweak and seek controversy, then argue aloud. Some of it is meaningful, but a lot of the discussion is not. Some of it has helped the game, but a lot of it has only exacerbated its problems. The attention today remains on the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. Last week, it was all about Trevor Gillies. Earlier in the week, the dispute that won’t go away — the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore saga — continues to divide people, seven years after the fact. Tomorrow, who knows what comes?
This has been a troubling season for the NHL in many ways. Its best player, Sidney Crosby, went down with a head injury and what made it so confusing is there was no one to blame. That’s how things happen sometimes in hockey. The greatest player in the game is out and we don’t know when he’ll return or at level he will return — see Marc Savard — but there is no villain in this story, only questions.
The issue here is concussions, preventable in a way, by eliminating head shots, but not entirely preventable because you can’t eliminate incidental and accidental contact, the kind that has put Crosby’s season on hold.
Hockey has changed dramatically since the lockout of 2004 — and not all of it for the best. The game has never been faster, the skill level has never been higher and the demands on the athletes have never been more extreme. All you have to do is watch the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics and juxtapose it alongside the great Canada-Russia games of 1972 to understand that the sport may have the same name, but the game being played is entirely different. The speed is more extreme than ever before, and post-lockout, with obstruction removed, the red line gone, goaltenders limited with their puck handling, the shifts are significantly shorter, the equipment harder, pressure greater to finish checks, the game has never been more exciting and more dangerous all at the very same time.
On the scale of all-time terrible or dangerous hockey hits, you will not find Chara’s hit on Pacioretty. The result was horrifying. The actual play was not. Almost every night, in almost every NHL rink, there is a hit not unlike what Chara managed on Pacioretty. In this case, what it came down to was, angle of the hit, location on the ice, difference in size of the athletes — had Chara hit Pacioretty five feet earlier or five feet later, there likely would have been no injury and no penalty other than interference. Even Pacioretty, in trying to explain the situation to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, basically contradicted himself. He said he thought it was intentional on Chara’s part, even though Chara has no history of this kind of nonsense. Then he said he was disgusted that there was no suspension by the NHL.
“I thought the league would do something, a little something,” said Pacioretty. “I’m not talking a big number. I don’t know, one game, two games, three games.”
So the injured Pacioretty trips up over his own argument here: If the hit was intentional, as he charges, then the league should have thrown the book at Chara. But how can the hit be intentional if the injured player himself is saying there should be at least a little something?
Just like Crosby, but through different circumstances, we don’t know when Pacioretty will play again. But the fact he was so badly injured has caused the usual suspects — a list growing now with Air Canada, the Montreal police and Quebec politicians — to overreact and have their voices heard.
They may not realize it themselves, but they bring a certain levity to a situation that doesn’t really require any. The NHL has more than one problem at hand. It has complex issues that will lead to more talk, more argument, more navel-gazing. This is, after all, hockey. It’s what we do.