TORONTO - Another hockey player bites the dust, or to be more specific, in Max Pacioretty’s case the turnbuckle.
The NHL reacts by doing what it does best.
Duck. And cover.
Hey, it’s not Zdeno Chara’s fault that turnbuckle got in the way of poor Max’s head; he was just finishing his check; it’s all part of the game; it’s instinct — and let’s just say there’s a thousand good excuses that end in a stretcher ride off the ice.
It has been ever thus with hockey and the NHL. From Marty McSorley attempting to use his stick to clean the ear wax out of Donald Brashear’s head, to Tie Domi making medical history by giving Scott Niedermayer a tonsillectomy using only his elbow, to Todd Bertuzzi seeking retribution by driving Steve Moore’s head into the ice, the NHL has always circled the wagons.
Fighting. Head shots. Goonery. There is initial outrage, maybe a slap on the wrist, but nothing much ever changes. There has never been a will for hockey to lose its Hurtin’ Game, and it isn’t going to change until they have to slam the coffin lid on somebody at least semi-famous.
Sure, this time it’s supposed to be different. This time a key sponsor is threatening to hit the league where it hurts — in the wallet. At least that’s what we’re supposed to believe after a letter was sent to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman threatening the withdrawal of Air Canada’s sponsorship.
Believe it when it happens.
When Dennis Vandal, Air Canada’s director of marketing and communications, released the letter was he truly relaying a corporate decision? Or, as the sniff test might indicate, is it just another homer incensed because the victim happens to be a guy from Air Canada’s hometown? Just wondering.
Because that’s what always happens.
It’s not so much that the public or the players are upset at the violence; it is that they are upset it happened to “one of their own.” History suggests that nobody, from the league to the players, to the public, actually wants to change hockey. It is our sacred cow.
The NHL is a testosterone factory that accepts, if not outright promotes the goonishness, retribution, the eye for an eye approach or what Cherryites call “The Code”. The sport, as glorious as it can be, also is rooted in systemic violence from the time we are kids.
The same attitude that makes a youngster a schoolyard bully, when done on ice makes him a player lauded for his aggressiveness. Coaches and parents smile and nod approval. And so they grow up thinking like the Canucks in Feb. 2000 who, after Brashear was knocked silly, bemoaned there were no future games against the Bruins, spoiling any chance for retribution.
There were suspensions but attitudes didn’t change. In 2004, they, and Bertuzzi got their so-called retribution, against Moore. Again, there were cries to stop the madness. Again, little happened. Life in the NHL went on as before. Some still blame Moore.
In March, 2007, an Angus Reid poll showed 68% of Canadians were tired of the violence in hockey. When contacted at the time, an NHL spokesman said he couldn’t comment until the league had a chance to review it in its entirety.
What that really means in English is they didn’t have any really good excuses yet but as soon as they came up with some they’d let us know. We’re still waiting for an answer there, too. But, I’m sure they’re working on it.
That same poll suggested the public wants the criminal justice system to bring charges against offenders, which is what Montreal legal beagles are pondering with Chara. Good luck proving intent guys. Been there, Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry tried in a 1975 incident, charging Dan Maloney with assault,
Evidently Bertuzzi didn’t get the memo. Or Chara. Or dozens of players in other incidents since.
So, call me cynical, but I’m not expecting big changes just because a marketing director is steamed that his homeboy got winged and whipped off a letter. Air Canada owns naming rights to the rink in Toronto and backs half a dozen NHL teams and it isn’t likely to give up that plum promotional tool overnight.
That’s what this feels like. An overnight reaction. A huge financial decision like pulling sponsorship wouldn’t come before hours and days of boardroom discussions. Let’s just say Gary Bettman isn’t likely to be shaking in his boots.
Meantime, the NHL and players will talk about their health and protecting the integrity of the game. But that’s all it is. Talk.
“It’s been an emotional day. I thought the league would do something,” Pacioretty said from hospital after the NHL decided not to suspend Chara.
Evidently that walk into the wall still has him in the land of the fairies, or some other fantasy world. In his autobiography, Tiger Williams admits he grew up with an inherent knowledge that hockey was a blood sport. “Nobody ever said: ‘Go get No. 8’ or ‘Fix that sonofabitch Joe Blow.’ Not ever. It was something you knew, instinctively. You didn’t need anyone to draw pictures...”
Chara (and only he knows for sure) likely was trying to run Pacioretty (who was involved in a fracas with the Bruins in an earlier game) into that turnbuckle; he just as likely wasn’t intending to break his neck.
Just as in May 2001 Tie Domi fired an elbow into the head of Scott Niedermayer with intent to injure, but not with intent to necessarily give him a concussion. While folks in Jersey were incensed, in Toronto fans wrote to a columnist that Niedermayer was prone to concussions anyway and that “it’s not as bad as everyone thinks it is.” In other words, the guy was soft in the head before Tie even hit him.
So, that made it all right. And, so the NHL looks at the Chara tape and says, “aw, he didn’t mean it.”
The point is it keeps happening. The fans, the players and the NHL don’t really care unless it happens to one of their own. Then they scream bloody murder. Personally, I don’t give a damn anymore. If the league and the players don’t care about their own safety and welfare, there’s no reason anyone else should.
Game on. Just keep 911 on the speed dial. You’re gonna need it.