Here we are, heading into one of the most anticipated games of this NHL season, for all the wrong reasons. In today's meeting, Wolf Blitzer's producers are saying, "Don't forget to record that hockey thing tonight. Someone might get killed."
Fact is, you don't need a grudge match between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins to find a clip of someone getting clobbered. Right now, we're averaging one spectacularly dirty play per night. The GMs maintain there are only about six hits per year the league must eliminate, but the players appear determined to prove them wrong.
The latest offender is Anaheim's James Wisniewski, who ran Brent Seabrook late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning.
"He's one of my really close friends," Wisniewski told The Orange County Register after the game. As the old saying goes, who needs enemies?
"When did it become legal to hammer guys without the puck?" one player asked, about 10 hours before this incident. It's a good question, but, then again, there are a lot of good questions going unanswered right now.
Number one among them: Where is the leadership on this issue going to come from?
Not the players. The only guy who actually looked like he felt badly about his hit (Alexander Ovechkin) is, as of this morning, the only guy who's been suspended. (Pending Wisniewski.) All of the talk about respect for "the brotherhood" is nothing but hot air. This week is proof.
Not the teams. The biggest problem with coaches/GMs/owners being entrusted to legislate this is their own self-interest. Everyone wants to see something done about dirty hits until it involves their own player.
Not the league. Let's see: Blindside the other team's best offensive player - no suspension. Try to rip off the leg of the other team's franchise cornerstone - no suspension. Hit someone hard from behind into the boards - game misconduct's enough, until we find out the guy's seriously hurt. OK, suspension.
Can't blame the Capitals for being angry, especially since Marc Savard's injury is of much bigger concern than Brian Campbell's. Repeat offender? Does it matter? Not for Matt Cooke or Steve Downie. Yes, for Ovechkin. (Even though he deserved one.)
"It's always the same players," Francois Beauchemin said Wednesday.
Thing is, it HAS to be the league. Several GMs say Colin Campbell didn't want to suspend Cooke because he thought it would be unfair. After all, Mike Richards wasn't punished. I can respect that in theory, but on a practical level, that approach is wrong. In a week where the NHL needed some semblance of self-control, there was nowhere near enough.
As we head towards the playoffs, where the games get even more intense, the league is risking seeing even more dangerous play. I keep going back to a comment made by 18-year pro Rob DiMaio about the headshot issue:
"If you really want to eliminate headshots, you have to make the penalty so severe that players will really think about it," he said. "You can't have them thinking, 'Well, if I hit this guy and I get suspended, it will be for only one game.'"
Since DiMaio said that two weeks ago, I've asked several players if it's true. The answer is a unanimous "Yes." They know they're not going to be held accountable for their actions (and no one else will, either).
The only person right now who can change that is Campbell. Maybe it's not fair to James Wisniewski or the Anaheim Ducks. But, the players can't seem to stop themselves, so it's incumbent upon the league to do something. As the NHL braces for whatever may happen in Boston, Campbell has a chance to send a serious message: whatever's happening right now is going to stop.
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