Friday, March 19, 2010
I will start this by saying that Im a huge hockey fan. Growing up in the seventies in Philadelphia, I had no choice. The Flyers won back-to-back Cups and were in the hunt for over a decade. Not to mention, they were the bad boys of hockey. Physical play ruled and the Flyers did it with an iron fist.
It was during this time I heard of hockey codes and unspoken rules. For the most part there was an honor to the fighting and rough stuff, and then there was just mayhem. I loved it either way, mostly I suppose, because it helped my team win. I do remember them being the scourge of the league, hated everywhere but their home ice. That was all right, Philadelphians could identify with that.
Then in 1976 when the Russian Red Army team came to North America for a four game tour, they were 2-0-1 in their first three games. All of Canada was aghast. They cant come here and beat all of our best teams, can they? Then came game number four against the Flyers. Well, now the pride of the NHL was resting on their performance. Kill the Ruskies!! Talk about a beat-down! The Russians did know what hit them and they were scared, enough so that they walked off the ice, only coming back after they learned that they would not get paid if they did not play. That 4-1 Flyers win is still one of my favorite games, in any sport, ever!! I learned that aggressive, hard-hitting play could make an opponent wilt. A lesson I have always remembered.
One of the things that excited me about my move to Chicago was the fact that I was moving to an Original 6 city. A hockey town! I soon learned how nave that view was, but my love for hockey never waned. But in addition to what I was experiencing here, hockey in general was suffering. Losing a national contract on a network that people watch, it was banished to something called the Versus network! Then there was the strike of 2004 and hockey was in a dire predicament indeed. Something learned on the hiatus was that the sport could not continue in its Neanderthal ways. It needed to grow and be able to present itself for what it could be: The fastest, most exciting professional sport that we have. Play was designed to move faster and hopefully allow its best players to operate less encumbered than before. It still should be physical, but thuggery, was a thing of the past. Like with everything else though, change comes slow. The game today is faster, but a lot of times it reverts back to its old self.
The way of intimidation today isnt through fighting though. It is through dirty, flashy hits. Wearing new hard equipment and helmets with visors some players feel emboldened to hide in stealth mode, waiting to unleash on an unsuspecting foe, knowing that personal harm isnt likely, and having disregard for the well-being of their opponents. This has increasingly become a problem in the league. Check out You-tube. Lately it seems that there are more occurrences of head-shots and checks from behind the back. In game that moves as fast, with players bigger than ever, this is a recipe for disaster. Now we are experiencing the effects with the Blackhawks. The Ovechkin and Wisniewski hits this week on Hawk players are an example of the cheap-shot league the NHL is becoming. The general managers held meeting last week with these shots being a main topic of discussion. So much so that the league wants to adopt rules changes by the end of this season. I say its about time. Like Ive stated before, I love the toughness of hockey, fighting included, but cheap-shots were never part of that. If they were, perpetrators should be dealt with accordingly, by players or officials. Without supervision and rules doesnt chaos ensue?
Then for me, I get to the Hawks game last Sunday against Washington. Two of the best teams in the league, a possible Stanley Cup preview, and one of my favorite players, Alexander Ovechkin on the ice. Then came the hit. Or should I say, the shove. His play against Brian Campbell was as dirty as it gets. The replay was as sickening as watching it live. Every time. And Ive watched it twenty times. Why? I wanted to figure out what the supposed experts were watching, for it seemed that everyone associated with the broadcast didnt have that much of a problem with it. What?! As it so happens, there is a national broadcast of the NHL on something called NBC every Sunday morningafternoon. Im all for that. Anything that can grow the sport is good, right? Maybe, its time to re-examine that. I love Eddie Olczyk. I listen to him every time he talks hockey, on the radio or TV. I especially like the rapport he has with my boy Pat Foley. Its a shame he cant take him with him to NBC. I think the expression is dumb-downed. Doc Emerick is a great hockey announcer, a long ago Flyers announcer, but opinionated, he isnt. He gives you the game. Fair enough. Now as far as the other two on the telecast, what was that Jim Carrey movie where he was Lloyd Christmas?
After the shove Eddie expressed that fact that it was a shove from behind, and a penalty, maybe a 5 minute one. That was it. Really? Then the show really started during the intermission with Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury. I have no idea who McGuire is, besides being Milburys caddy, and a third wheel on the game telecast, but Milbury?
Isnt he the guy who drove the Islanders into the ground, defining the Peter Principle? Isnt he the Matt Millen of the NHL? Do they use the same pictures? To say his credibility is thin might be an over-statement. Then you combine it with the fact that his TV role-model is Don Cherry, and I have to ask, Who is this clown? During their segment they lamented the fact that Ovechkin was banished from the game and that the on-ice officials had over-reacted. Furthermore, McGuire said the shove just showed how strong Ovechkin was and Milbury said the game was going soft and was turning into squash. (The on-ice officials were the only ones with any onions in this whole mess.)
What Im wondering was, where is the analysis here? Hits or shoves from behind can kill someone. As Eddie said, its hard to protect yourself. Really? How about its cowardly? Campbell had well established position and get this, its important, had gotten rid of the puck 5 feet before contact, which was initiated from behind. Realizing that he could not take Campbell into the boards, he would have gotten an obvious penalty, he was more subtle with the shove.
This was a needless, reckless act. It had nothing to do with the play and nothing to do with a clean, fair finish of a check. And, most of all, why wasnt it mentioned ONCE during the telecast that Ovechkin has a history of these types of plays, in fact has been suspended before for a questionable hit? I think it would have been a fair assessment to say that Ovechkin is an exciting player, but his physical style sometimes crosses the line. The clown is doing his sorry impression of Canadas sartorially challenged favorite son and not worried about what the facts are. That Eddie did not challenge the intermission shenanigans when the game resumed was a disappointment. I know that he wants to be fair on a national telecast, and not appear to be a homer. But, fair is fair. Im sure if he was doing the game with Pat, they would have called it what it was, a dirty play by a player that has a history of such questionable acts.(And again, I am a fan of Ovechkin, but maybe he needs to be reigned in a little.)
The problem here is that hockey has a major issue with these hits. It has actually garnered national media attention. Besides the Olympics, that doesnt happen to the sport often. What the examination is asking is whether this is the same old, regionalized sport, being played by thugs? Or is it a fast exciting game that can be enjoyed by the masses? Its time for the powers to be to step up and say this type of play isnt acceptable by anyone. All of us that follow hockey had hoped that the sport could capitalize on the great exposure it got from the Vancouver Games, which had one of the most watched games ever, a game that was a great testament to the sport. Then the season resumed, and the national games on NBC went back to not being watched. Thank goodness for that, I guess. For what hockey needs to do is what the other sports have learned, protect your players, your stars especially, they are your greatest asset. Dont talk about it, do it! And for the love of god, if you have a national broadcast of your games, make sure that those on it represent it in the best way. No big deal though, its only your entire future that depends on it.
(Bartenders note: Upon finishing this blog late Thursday night, I learned of Wisniewski getting an 8 game suspension for his hit on Brent Seabrook. Im thinking: Ovechkin only got 2? Got to start somewhere I guess. More to come...)