The NHL: Actions Without Consequences

by Darren Clarke, May 2, 2017

Every generation suffers from the conceit that, unlike the generations that preceded it, they have it all figured out: they dress better, they entertain better, they just plain do being enlightened beings better. So here in 2017 with expansive health food sections in every supermarket, access to almost unlimited information just a Google search away, and well manicured beards everywhere, it appears this latest contender for the crown of the fully evolved generation has come to pass.

Or not.

Yeah we generally eat better, yeah we have access to a lot of information, and yeah your beard is pretty, but we’ve still got a long ways to go on the evolution scale.

The world’s most affluent country has massive poverty, racial strife, environmental calamity, and Donald Trump. We celebrate the vacuous, the gratuitous, the shameless. We have tons of information available to us but do not process it, or act upon it, thoughtfully.

Which brings us to the National Hockey League.

The National Hockey League (NHL), where a large, exceptionally well conditioned, man can break a stick over someone’s head, then, with their opponent bent, dazed in the wake of this unprovoked attack from behind, circle back to knock them down hoping to to follow up the assault with a hockey stick with numerous punches to their face. The NHL where the perpetrator of this crime receives as punishment a suspension of a single game. One game. One.

There are no legal repercussions for this kind of attack, no significant personal consequences, nor any consequences for the team the player is affiliated with. Columbus simply lost a marginal player for a game.

When Matt Calvert of the Columbus Blue Jackets went after Tom Kuhnhackl of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Two of their playoff series this year he did so in the sketchiest of circumstances: Under a minute to go in a game where his team was down by three goals. He skated around looking to cause some trouble and eventually just decided to apply a cross check at full force to the neck/head area of the closest unsuspecting opponent.

It was an assault.

A grown man losing a game unable to contain himself within minimal social expectations and instead choosing to act out in a manner that could have caused significant physical damage. An assault. An immature, dangerous, assault.

I could go on at length about how messed up the National Hockey League culture is but one headline I thing does the trick, Should Matt Calvert be suspended for breaking his stick on Kuhnhackl? Yes, after that kind of attack Andrew Bottomley of Sportsnet asked if he should be suspended.

Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL. If you want to know more about the NHL consider that Crosby has missed significant time in his career with concussion issues. If you want to know even more about the NHL consider that it is being sued by over one-hundred former players for how it has elected to handle (or not handle) player safety, notably concussions.

Last night Sidney Crosby entered the game with his team up 2-0 in their series with the Washington Capitals. The Capitals came into the game as a team seemingly desperate to overcome a long and rich history of playoff underachieving often defined by losses to the very same Penguins they were once again trailing in a series. Early in the the first period Crosby cut into a seam in prime scoring real estate and received a pass on the lip of the crease. As Crosby looked to pull the puck back to avoid being poke checked by the goaltender and give himself some space to shoot he was immediately struck by two glancing blows from the stick of Alex Ovechkin attempting to check him from behind. The first blow slashed across Crosby’s right shoulder, the second, the back of Crosby’s head. Ovechkin also managed to kick the back of Crosby’s left skate causing him to lean back and drag his left leg to maintain his balance. By this point Washington goaltender Braden Holtby had managed to deftly poke check the puck away from Crosby leaving the Pens captain puckless, on bended knee, vulnerably coasting past the net where he was met by a firm crosscheck to the head from Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. Crosby lay on the ice for some time before being helped up by teammates. He left the game and did not return.

Today the NHL announced there would be no supplementary discipline for Matt Niskanen. Today the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that Sidney Crosby would not play in Game Four due to the concussion received after the crosscheck in question.

I made the mistake of checking out Twitter in the wake of Niskanen’s shot to the defenceless Crosby. While it is always dangerous to look to Twitter to thoughtful reactions to anything, particularly a sporting event, the really concerning thing is that the mindset of the most absurd person on Twitter appears to be exactly what the NHL employs in making its’ decisions about incidents that impact the health and welfare of the people that embody its’ game.

So a couple quick points to @dumbass79 on Twitter and the NHL Department of Player Safety-

  • There is no amount of money a person can be earning that excuses his employer from putting up reasonable protections to prevent their brains from being turned to mush.
  • Everybody has their head down sooner or later. Everybody. If you don’t believe me, go to Youtube and check out Wayne Gretzky being flattened by Bill Mcreary. Everybody. The consequences for fundamental human fallibility should never be as drastic as those attached to concussions.
  • When evaluating dangerous incidents people tend to assign the lowest level of ability and awareness to the perpetrator. These are NHL players. Generally, these are the most aware and able people on the damned planet. If Matt Niskanen didn’t want to cross check Sidney Crosby in the face he wouldn’t have. If Zdeno Chara didn’t want to run Max Paciorrety into a stanchion at the end of the bench he wouldn’t have. NHL players make a living off of split second decisions, the very reason they are in the NHL is because of how they make split second decisions. This  ain’t your grandmother being tossed on the ice and given a stick and being told to, “Keep your head up! Keep your feet moving!” These are professional split second decision makers, the notion that they shouldn’t be held accountable for split second decisions flies in the face of the very reason they are employed as they are.

If the NHL really wanted to protect its’ players Matt Calvert would have been suspended for a year and the Columbus Blue Jackets would have been fined. If the NHL really wanted to do something to prevent head injuries Matt Niskanen  wouldn’t be playing again in the playoffs and the Washington Capitals would have been fined. But those things didn’t happen, in fact next to nothing happened. In doing little to nothing about head shots and violence the NHL perpetuates the culture that leads to head injuries.

When Washington coach Barry Trotz referred to the Niskanen cross check to Sidney Crosby as, “A hockey play,” he provided a frightening insight into just how far away the NHL is from protecting its’ players. Hockey guys always have a way of explaining reckless violence as something other than what it is. The only way to affect actual change it to send a clear message that assault and hits to the head are not hockey plays. If Matt Niskanen knows cross checking Sidney Crosby in the head is the last play he’ll make in the playoffs it doesn’t happen. If Matt Calvert knows he won’t be employed in the NHL for a year if he commits an assault with under a minute to go in a game, it doesn’t happen. If Zdeno Chara knows he will miss half a season for running Max Pacioretty into a stanchion it doesn’t happen. If the NHL adds prohibitive consequences into the average players split second thinking process better, safer, split second decisions will be made.

The NHL prides itself on toughness, on being a “man’s,” game. But how tough or manly is it for the game to in essence support its’ constituents being assaulted from behind and while they are most vulnerable? How tough or manly is it for the game to enable violent attacks that often end in injury? It’s 2017. If we really want to pretend to have evolved it’s time to make toughness and manliness about greater things- Restraint, perseverance, dignity, honesty, and accepting meaningful consequences for inappropriate actions.

Imagine manliness being attached to the highest ethics and principles. I’m telling you, it’ll go great with the beard.