When the baton was passed last summer, from an apparently tired Colin Campbell to a fresh-faced Brendan Shanahan, the assumption was that life was about to change in the National Hockey League.
And change it has — not necessarily for the better.
The words being used by NHL coaches Monday ranged from chaotic to zany to out of control, most in favour of the weekend festival of violent hockey hysteria, some like Todd McLellan in San Jose, outraged by the hockey madness he has witnessed and unwillingly participated in. But the sadness in all of this: The NHL has never been out of control at playoff time and it’s probably never been as popular at the very same time.
That is the unfortunate rub here. Television ratings in the first round of the playoffs — where suspension talk has been elevated to daily conversation — are through the roof. We’re not talking so much about last night’s goal or last night’s game as we are about today’s hearing and suspension. Who gets how many games, and for what?
The newest sport in Canada: Name that suspension. Never mind the tune, the hard part is getting inside the head of both Shanahan and the apparently blood thirsty people for whom he works.
In Canada, where it’s expected we’re going to watch hockey on television, TV numbers on TSN are up 56% over last year’s first round. And the overnight ratings on NBC, where hockey generally goes to die, happen to be the best in 11 years and the best for any single playoff game over the past decade not played in the Stanley Cup final. In other words, the purists and the bleeding hearts, as coach Ken Hitchcock likes to call us, are being crushed in favour of a return to the neanderthal side of the game — where fighting, hitting from behind, hits to the head, and all out attacks have overtaken whatever finesse there once was in the playoffs.
The NHL would gladly put an end to all this if it wasn’t so darn successful in putting its ugly side on display. But in a world where UFC is gaining popularity and sports such as baseball find their audience diminished over time, the NHL can sell bloodsport packaged as playoff intensity and sell out. The key term being: sell out.
It’s not that they’re selling violence as much as they’re approving of it. And as much as Shanahan saw himself as the difference maker who could take hockey to the next level in his role as the league’s chief disciplinarian, he had his wings clipped after a strong start on the job and in doing so has been rendered rather impotent over time. And so, in a world of opposites, NHL hockey is devolving while junior hockey evolves. The example maker, instead, is being made an example of. The juniors have eliminated head shots in Ontario and up next will be eliminating fighting. The NHL, meanwhile, does neither but it seems to contradict itself on a daily basis. It fines defensive all-star Shea Weber the equivalent of one shift’s pay for taking another star’s head — that being Henrik Zetterberg — and bashing it into the glass. The rest of the players in the league see the turnbuckle shot, witness the tiny fine, and figure just about everything is in play come playoff time.
Well, everything, including Sidney Crosby’s reputation and composure is now on display — with the curtains having been drawn back — and how disappointing is that for the NHL? When the Pittsburgh Penguins needed the face of the game to step up, be a leader, calm his team down and do everything the best player in hockey is supposed to do, Crosby snapped, lost his good senses, embarrassed himself and his sport and became a clown in a three-ring circus.
He took himself and his team — although they seemed willing participants along with the seemingly incompetent Marc-Andre Fleury — out of the series and probably the playoffs and frankly, you expect better from Crosby because he’s Crosby.
Just as you expect better from the game.
Hitchcock said he loves the passion and emotion and youth of this year’s playoffs, how teams are putting more on the line than ever before because they believe the Stanley Cup is that attainable. “It’s like it used to be in junior.”
And depending on your personal viewpoint, that is either compliment or insult.