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NHL needs get-tough policy for on-ice slurs

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds wrestles with Rangers forward Sean Avery at the Wells Fargo Center in...

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds wrestles with Rangers forward Sean Avery at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Penn., Sep. 26, 2011. (BRUCE BENNETT/Getty Images/AFP)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:09 PM ET

TORONTO - In the heat of battle, players are always going to say awful things to each other, and no commissioner, coach or players association will ever stop that. Whenever there are cheap shots and face washes and fisticuffs, angry words are going to be said. It’s been that way forever.

The difference now is, more of what is said on the ice is being revealed to the public, either because it’s recorded (arenas and playing fields are blanketed with microphones, now) and replayed, or reported after the fact by the players themselves. The unwritten rule: “What’s said on the ice, stays on the ice” is falling by the wayside.

On Monday, New York Rangers forward Sean Avery accused Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds of uttering a homophobic slur towards him. In the past, players kept what was said on the ice largely to themselves.

Players are even having their lips read. Ask Kobe Bryant about that.

It’s reached a point where, if players say anything inappropriate, they’re going to get called on to the carpet. And that’s fine, particularly when racial and homophobic slurs are used.

But now that the public is increasingly privy to what is being said on the ice, how does the NHL deal with this public relations nightmare?

One way is to draft an actual list of verboten words and phrases, that are deemed inappropriate and unacceptable under any circumstances and are punishable by automatic suspension. Make it so there are no grey areas, because there are plenty at the moment.

The NHL is working towards making head shots, no matter what the intent, punishable. Perhaps it’s time to do the same for verbal abuse.

Players have to know, especially now that what they say is increasingly “out there”, what lines can’t be crossed, because swearing and taunting have been a part of professional sport forever.

Perhaps it’s time to set some real parameters.

Players have to understand what insults are inappropriate, because as Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson points out, players say things they don’t really mean, like the three-letter F-word that Simmonds alledgedly used on Avery.

“Whatever Simmonds allegedly said (to Avery) is a common word that’s thrown out there and it really, for a hockey player, has nothing to do with the other player’s sexuality,” said Wilson. “It’s just a word that gets thrown around.”

That doesn’t make it right, Wilson said, but there is.

So perhaps the only way to banish such an insult is to formally outlaw the actual word. Actually put it down on paper. Along with other offensive slurs.

And not just stop there. There are other, equally insidious, ways players get under each other’s skin that the league should look into.

Some players, for instance, try to get under an opponent’s skin by taunting him over personal issues. Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell said following Monday’s Simmonds-Avery affair that Avery mocked him about his recent divorce.

“He was chirping to me about that,” Hartnell said. “Some things can’t be talked about, but from him, I didn’t expect anything less.”

“I don’t condone our players yelling and screaming and saying really sick and low stuff because it’s pretty easy now to find dirt on anybody,” Wilson said. “All you have to do is go on the internet and you can see some kind of issue some guy’s going through. And that’s below the belt as far as I’m concerned.”

“I guess creative people will have to come up with new ways to get under somebody’s skin,” Wilson added. “But where’s the boundary here? I can’t say exactly what someone like Sean Avery says, but he’s usually crossing a boundary in a different kind of way. In a personal way.”

The NHL has to face these issues head-on.

By doing so, they’ll be able to move on.

It’s like the relocation issue. As long as there are weak franchises in the league, writers and broadcasters are going to harp on that. And that hurts the league and the game. It’s the same with verbal abuse.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Wilson. “What we’re talking about now is suspensions and all these other incidents. We’re not talking about hockey.”


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