Anyone who witnessed the hilarity that ensued on March 24th during the Pittsburgh Penguins – Ottawa Senators game anthems is possibly drawing a correlation between that trainwreck of a performance and the complete trainwreck that has been the NHL playoffs thus far.
Personally, after witnessing my Penguins seemingly lose their minds to a man and seeing the destruction that has been wrought in other playoff series, I’m more inclined to believe that that single rendition of “O, Canada” was actually ushering in the beginnings of the Mayan Doomsday prophecy. In one week, everything I have ever known about my team, its fans, the NHL, and the sport I love so much has been completely turned on its head.
The state of North American hockey, and everything related to it, has been in full-on Hunger Games mode since Wednesday. Watch a playoff series, and the viciousness and complete disregard players have for one another are appallingly evident (Except for the New Jersey-Florida series, which is striving to counteract this trend by doing nothing of interest, anytime, ever). Bloggers, podcasters, and sports journalists have gotten in on the act, too. Twitter is a complete warzone that has gone beyond the usual friendly-to-antagonistic internet sparring that comes hand-in-hand with playoff rivalries. Have you been out in the hockey internet world lately? It’s a cold place. It’s as if a switch flipped and sent everyone even remotely associated with hockey into full batshit crazy mode.
I started writing this post 8 hours ago on my lunch break at work, and only just now returned to it. From the time I sat down after work until now, three suspensions have been handed out (James Neal – 1 game, Arron Asham – 4 games, Nicklas Backstrom – 1 game), one of the game’s best players in Marian Hossa was carted away on a stretcher thanks to repeat offender Raffi Torres (and oh, how that phrase “repeat offender” makes me laugh now as the league has shown it means nothing), and a formerly reputable Philadelphia newspaper has resorted to junior high level photoshopping and name-calling on their front cover. And earlier today, another suspension and breaking news that Daniel Alfredsson has had a setback from an injury he sustained from – you guessed it, a dirty hit earlier in the series. As I type this, I have multiple browser tabs open, one of which is Twitter, which I refresh every few minutes just to make sure I don’t miss any more breaking news.
Correction – make that heartbreaking news.
Because my heart truly is broken. The heart of any hockey fan, watching what their beloved sport has sunk to in the past week, has been broken. One thing has been made painfully clear: Something is horribly, horribly wrong with the state of the NHL.
The league clearly can’t keep a leash on its players. It’s lost control. But beyond the shoddy officiating, beyond the inconsistent suspensions and punishments, between the missed calls and the fact that discipline seems to be determined by a combination of factors involving a random coin flip and the current phase of the moon, it starts with the players.
A lot of people are throwing Brendan Shanahan under the bus lately, and that’s understandable. As the NHL’s discipline czar, he’s bound to bear the brunt of the anger and confusion people feel. He knew it when he took the job. The fact Colin Campbell evacuated the position as soon as he possibly could was evidence enough of that. And if that didn’t tell Shanahan what he was in for, Campbell’s maniacal laughter and, “Your problem now, sucka!” as he bolted for the door should have.
But Shanahan hands out discipline in the form of fines and suspensions when the players do something so egregiously vicious and over-the-line that punishment is warranted. Shanahan’s job exists BECAUSE of dirty plays and thoughtless players. It’s not the other way around. Granted, we could debate the influence of inconsistent discipline upon the actions of players on the ice, but no one knows how it correlates, no one can determine the cause and effect.
The one thing that IS for certain, though, is that it begins and ends with the players themselves. Neither Shanahan nor Gary Bettman (so often reviled as he is) can control a player’s emotions out on the ice. Neither of them can control if a player decides to act like a petulant child when things don’t go his way. Neither one of them can control whether or not a player’s instinctual viciousness rises to the forefront and takes over the steering mechanism on his brain for a few seconds. At some point in the past year or so, the iron-clad respect players had for each other, no matter what sweater they wore, has started to leech out of the interactions between opposing players on the ice. It’s been an increasingly alarming trend, and not even Matt Cooke’s lengthy suspension at the end of last season and subsequent 180-degree turnaround has been so much as a temporary speed bump in the road to anarchy. The first round of these playoffs is the disheartening, but logical conclusion of that slide toward a complete lack of regard for one another.
It’s almost impossible to understand why and how this started to happen, why players have suddenly started to take such cheap shots, why concussions are on the rise, why these playoffs have been characterized by a complete loss of control. I have to wonder, though, if its the frustration of players boiling over. NHL referees have a difficult, high stress job, and I give them all the credit in the world – but even the most casual hockey fan could have told you the officiating this season has been inconsistent at best. It’s been downright disgraceful at times – too many times, as it turns out. I’ve watched the sport I love, finally in a great spot with the on-ice product and expanded TV coverage, start to backslide this season into the clutch-and-grab league of the late-90s that dragged the game down and ushered in the lockout.
I have to wonder if it’s a vicious cycle that directly correlates: As concussions and head injuries have increased, referees have let clutching and grabbing sneak back into the league in an attempt to slow down players and reduce the opportunities for vicious hits; as clutching and grabbing have crept back into the game, players have started growing more and more frustrated with their inability to move as freely as before and have started responding by – you guessed it – laying out increasingly dangerous hits. It’s the only thing that makes even remote sense to me, the only thing that begins to explain why the league has suddenly lost its mind en masse.
Because I WANT to believe that this is an aberration, I WANT to believe the NHL is better than this. Hockey players are regular guys, GOOD guys. I have been lucky enough to meet and interact with athletes from all four major sports on numerous occasions, and I can say with certainty that hockey players are by and large the most down-to-earth, good-hearted pro athletes I’ve met. Unquestionably. It’s one of the reasons I love the sport so much – in an era where basketball players go on trial for rape, when baseball players are tainted with the steroid controversy, and football players are in and out of jail so often that it ceases to be newsworthy, when so much of being a professional athlete is about me, me, me, hockey players still embrace the team mentality, humility, being regular guys. As brutal as the sport is, as raw as it is, there is still a purity and a – dare I say it? – an innocence that remains in hockey and sets it apart. This is not to say hockey players are angels. They’re not. Far from it. But they are absolutely good guys who would go to war for their teammates, and who had always had a great deal of respect for one another, for opponents, simply because they were bonded together by hockey.
But that’s changed now and I don’t know what’s happened or how to get it back. I’m as lost as a puppy when its owner walks out the door. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to fix it. All I can do is sit helplessly by and write internet blogs that a handful of people read while watching my beloved sport tear itself apart in stupidity and violence. Maybe all of that sounds melodramatic. Maybe it is. I just know I want my sport back, the sport I love. The sport I want to see played hard, played cleanly, played with joy and passion and smarts. I’m sure the players do, too.
That’s why the future of our sport is not up to Brendan Shanahan, or the GMs, or the coaches, or the refs, ultimately. It’s up to the players. And it’s time for them to step up, step back, and step forward to reclaim the sport we all love so much.