More than 20 years ago, the great Mario Lemieux, tired of being mauled by the “muckers” and “grinders” of the National Hockey League, called the NHL a “garage league.”
The NHL talks a good game these days about removing mindless violence from the sport, but has it really changed all that much since Lemieux’s heyday?
Certainly, we no longer have the benches-clearing brawls from days of yore, but the cheap shots and head-hunting seem to continue pretty much unabated, despite the league’s spoken desire to rein in such violence.
There are plenty of cases to illustrate this.
Close to home, we still have no idea when we’ll see Brooks Orpik back on the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nearly two weeks ago, Orpik was attacked from behind by Boston Bruins “tough guy” Shawn Thornton, who threw Orpik to the ice and viciously pummeled the defenseless defenseman. Orpik’s crime: a previous legal hit that leveled a Bruins player, followed by Orpik’s refusal to be drawn into a fistfight with the Bruins’ resident goon. Thornton got a 15-game suspension for an attack that would have landed him behind bars had it occurred while he was in “civilian” clothes. And, of course, he and his union are appealing the punishment.
But our Penguins aren’t blameless in this culture of hockey violence. In the same game in which Orpik was assaulted, the Pens’ James Neal, no stranger to dirty play, put his knee to the head of a Bruins player who already was on all fours on the ice as the result of a hit. And the Pens’ Deryk Engelland was suspended five games Wednesday after launching his shoulder into the jaw of the Detroit Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader the other night, knocking him senseless.
A few days ago, Washington County native and noted NHL brawler George Parros of the Montreal Canadiens suffered a concussion in a fight with his New York Islanders counterpart, Eric Boulton. It’s his second concussion of the season. He missed a dozen games earlier this season when his head slammed the ice during a fight with yet another NHL “enforcer,” the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Colton Orr.
Then, on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson charged the Philadelphia Flyers’ Brayden Schenn from behind and plowed his head into the boards. Wilson will get a few games off without pay. It’s anyone’s guess when Schenn will return.
These sorts of reckless incidents, which show a total lack of respect for fellow players, happen over and over and over again.
Evidence is mounting that the punishment inflicted on NHL players is having lasting neurological effects much like those suffered by National Football League players. That’s especially true of those whose only role in the game is to drop the gloves and try to punch out the lights of another player. Suicides and other premature deaths are becoming all too common among that group.
Rough-and-tumble play always has been a part of hockey, but as in football, the players are now faster, bigger and stronger than they have ever been. And, as in football, the equipment worn by NHL players, ostensibly for their protection, actually helps them inflict greater physical harm on the opposition.
The NHL has clearly stated its intent to root out deliberately injurious play from its game, and even though suspensions have been doled out left and right, as the old saying goes, the (dirty) hits just keep on coming. The league needs to do more to eradicate the foolish, childish “hockey code” that calls for an eye for an eye, often in the form of staged bare-knuckle brawling. Many players, coaches and front-office types in the NHL say fighting is needed to keep the other types of dirty play from escalating. Those are the words of people who want to cling to the status quo and to preserve a role in the league for players whose only real talents are to inflict pain on opponents.
Fighting is not necessary to snuff out the other forms of cheap violence in professional hockey. The real answer is incrementally harsher punishments until the players finally get the message that this kind of behavior will no longer be tolerated. And the players union, if it really cares about the health of its membership, will join in the effort, rather than attempt to obstruct it.