By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) This should be the time when real hockey fans are celebrating the sport.
Instead, it is a time for shame.
Playoff hockey is supposed to be about speed, play-making and memorable goals.
This year, it’s about head shots, brawls and mayhem. The Raffi Torres hit on Marian Hossa may be the worst of the messy incidents that the NHL has on its hands. Torres hit Hossa with a blind-side head shot in which he left his feet and clearly tried to injure his opponent. Torres is a repeat offender who needs to be kept off the ice for 20 games or more.
The hit cost the Hawks their leading regular-season scorer and a player that Joel Quenneville trusts to be out on the ice at all times. The Hawks did not do the “hockey thing” and mete out their own brand of justice on the ice. They shouldn’t have to resort to thuggery in order play postseason hockey. That may appeal to the animalistic instincts, but it really has nothing to do with playing well or playing hard.
Dirty play from a player like Torres has been the rule and not the exception in this year’s playoffs. Violence marred the second game of the Ottawa-New York Rangers series when the Senators sent their goon Matt Carkner to pummel Brian Boyle at the start of the game. Carkner’s violence was matched by Rangers rookie Carl Hagelin, who delivered an elbow to the head of Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson.
The Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series has been a textbook of hockey violence. Yes, we understand that these two Pennsylvania rivals “hate” each other. That was established before the series started. But does that mean that Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham and James Neal had to deliver cheap shots to the heads and necks of their opponents. Sidney Crosby is supposed to be the face of the NHL because of his skill level. When he returned from concussion-related issues that kept him out for nearly 15 months, the league celebrated his return as if he was a conquering hero. Instead of playing with class, Crosby has been cheap-shotting all over the ice, drawing penalties and acting like a petulant child when things have not gone his way.
The St. Louis Blues lost Game 1 of their series with San Jose and they changed their tactics in Game 2. They imposed their will by beating up as many Sharks as they could and they have won the ensuing two games. Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who missed 40 games this season due to concussion issues, cross-checked Boston’s Rich Peverley violently in the throat following the Capitals’ 4-3 loss to the Bruins in Game 3. He was given a match penalty and suspended one game.
There is plenty of blame to assign and criticism has been high. Start off with dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan, who gave Nashville’s Shea Weber a pass when he bashed Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass after the first game of the Red Wing-Predators series. Weber didn’t have to miss a game and a $2,500 fine was merely a drop of water in the ocean.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman does nothing and says little about the sport he is supposed to lead. NHL Players Association president Donald Fehr is too busy readying himself for the upcoming player revolt that threatens the 2012-13 season to get involved in this issue.
As culpable as those three are, the lion’s share of the blame falls on the players who are responsible for the ugliness. Nobody made Torres try to turn Hossa’s head into a piñata. Carkner was not forced to brutally attack Boyle. Crosby and his mates in Pittsburgh did not have to act like muggers. They did this on their own.
The time has come to take excessive violence out of the game. You may love to see a good one-on-one fight, but you can turn to HBO and watch a boxing match. If you continue to allow fighting in the game, it will lead to more violent incidents and dirty plays. The game can be breathtaking when it’s played the right way. When it’s not, it’s something akin to pro wrestling.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.