Friday, June 17, 2011

The Problem with NHL Hockey

As someone who grew up on NHL hockey and played hockey in multiple different settings and yet fell out of love with it a few years back, I was pulled back in this past Christmas as my boyhood team reached the top of the standings and garnered my (af first) passing interest again. In the months that followed I was surprised both by how emotionally invested in the team I could still be and also by how captivated by the sport I could still become. Part of this re-interest had to do with the team philosophy, which was to play hard "between the whistles" and avoid all that silly stuff. They didn't always succeed at this, of course, but I appreciated the thought and it helped me to get back into the sport again.

And oh did I get back into it. So much so that I now face the decision of sticking with NHL hockey (and thus voicing my opinion about what I wish it would be) or leaving it be (only to be picked up again when my team nears glory). As I consider this I have a few complaints to register. I will group them according to three categories, and illustrate them with reference to the playoff season that just passed.

First of all, there is the culture of violence and retribution. Fighting. It is part of the game. It isn't just something that happens once in awhile, it is an accepted and even expected part of the game. In what other team sport is that the case? None. I think the best way to illustrate the problem is with reference to former NHL referee Kerry Fraser's comments on Brad Marchand's repeated shots to the face of Daniel Sedin at the end of Stanley Cup Game 6, to which Sedin did not respond:
“This is really a telling play, in my opinion, as to the series and moving into Game 7," Fraser said. "On that particular play, there is absolutely no question that the referee should have assessed at least two minutes for roughing for Marchand, and I probably would have given him a misconduct as well, to get rid of him.

"That being aside, the captain, the leader of that team, he's a skill player, tremendously skilled player, not a physical guy, but sooner or later you've got to throw the gloves down and you've got to defend yourself on a play like that, especially when you're looking at a guy that might be an inch or two shorter than you, you've got to step it up. I don't think Ray Bourque as a captain — he would never take that kind of abuse, personally.

"But beyond that, nobody came to the aid of Daniel Sedin. He's their captain, he's their leader. Where are these guys that would want to stick up and say, 'Hey, we're going home, we've lost this game, we're going back home, and they're not going to do that to us?' ... You don’t let your captain get a rag-doll treatment like that. Either he does it himself — steps it up with the game lost and going back home for the hammer, or somebody's got to jump in there and take care of business, and that never happened.
To add insult to injury, Daniel Sedin and his brother were repeatedly called the "Sedin sisters" for and castigated as "Europeans" because of this approach to the rough stuff. Putting aside the disgusting misogyny and ethnocentricity of these remarks, the underlying assumption at issue here is that hockey can't be played that way.

We are unable to imagine, it seems, an NHL where the referees took care of the penalties and the players just played the game without violently taking matters into their own hands. Call me a purist, fine, but I find the hockey ethos reflected by Fraser's remarks harder and harder to stomach. And I find my future as a fan hinging on how much I'll be able to stomach it.

Now, I know that the Canucks are not innocent in this regard, but if I'm to watch the NHL anymore it is going to be for players like the Sedins, and not for the players that Fraser insists they should be.

(Of course, I'm sure there are examples that could be named where the Sedin twins actually did punch back, but please bear in mind that I'm using them as a general illustration, not as pristine messiahs. That said, let's note that at the very least these are some pretty honourable athletes. Not only did they top up the franchise's $5 million donation to the local children's hospital with £1.5 million of their own, but check out Daniel Sedin's response to the charges against him that I noted above. When Mike Milbury called the Sedins "Thelma and Louise" Daniel replied: “We don't really worry about those kind of comments. He made a bad comment about us, calling us women. I don't know how he looks at women. I would be pretty mad if I was a woman.” Genius.)

Which brings me to the second problem: Media coverage and the sports cliche. The chest-thumping idiocy displayed by Milbury is commonplace. But that's an easy target. Let's acknowledge that this isn't happening as often as it once did. But we still have the problem of tired cliches passing for entertainment. I know this is a problem in all sports but in this past playoff series the problem was evident in a massive way, and in fact seemed to be particularly bad when it came to the NHL itself.

Of course, there is only so much you can say, so maybe sports media will always be rife with cliches. Maybe it tries too hard to get beyond this. Whatever the case, it seems quite prevalent that as soon as a player says anything interesting, the media jumps all over it and abuses it, takes it out of context, sensationalizes it all the more, and makes it stupid. Take, for instance, Roberto Luongo's "jab" at opposition goaltender and eventual Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner Tim Thomas.

After the Canucks scored a goal where Bieksa seemed to fluke the puck off the end boards so that Lapierre could put it into the abandoned net, Luongo was asked to give Thomas some props for his great goaltending by admitting what a happenstance series of events it took to score on him. The assumption in the question was that the play was a mistake, and the assumption was that Luongo should provide fodder for that reporter's admiration for his opponent. (That Thomas ended up being the better goaltender in this series is neither here nor there, the point is that under no circumstances should we expect that Luongo ought to go in for those assumptions.)

Knowing that it was a planned miss by Bieksa due to scouting reports on Thomas, Luongo made an honest and competitive comment (rather than a cliche, which is what we usually get) which called it like it was. To his credit, he didn't get nasty with it, and admitted that sometimes it would work out vice versa - sometime Thomas would make saves which Luongo didn't, simply because they play a different style.

But the media blew it up and Luongo was chastised for his "jab". Questioned later he pointed out that Thomas never says anything nice about him, and Luongo was mocked all the more. Why should Luongo care if Thomas praises him? The point is that the whole thing started with the press asking him to give Thomas kudos precisely where they weren't deserved. See how dumb the whole thing is? Luongo's comments got away from sports cliches, and then he was roasted for it. Sports is supposed to be entertaining and competitive. This can get stupidly over-competitive, but it can also get stupidly unintelligent. I found the latter very frustrating - and it seems pretty common.

The third problem I want to mention is all those scrums after the whistle. This is relatively unique to NHL hockey and quite closely related to the first. It isn't quite the same as the culture of fighting and retribution. It is the prevalence of instances where players jostle and slash and facewach each other to prove a point and assert each other's territory. Sure, it is always going to happen, but does it have to be such a part of the game? I'd rather it wasn't.

Referring again to the Stanley Cup finals, let's recall the two major controversies that ensued. The biggest one was Aaron Rome's concussion-causing late hit on Nathan Horton. The scene was ugly and even horrific. Rome was suspended from the rest of the series. The other controversy was Alex Burrows bite of the finger of Patrice Bergeron in one of these after-the-whistle scrums. Bergeron was giving Burrows one of the classic facewashes with his glove, and Burrows caught a stray finger in his mouth and bit down. No suspension.

Obviously, the bite is silly. I won't defend it. But what really gets me is the ire that was sent solely in Vancouver's direction because of it. Why does this bug me? Because as silly as the bite was, its silliness is a subset of the silliness of the scrum to begin with! Sure, the facewash is not as downright dirty as the bite, but they are on the same sliding scale of absurdity. Burrows was dumb to do that. But the whole thing is dumb. Though everyone was all over the Canucks for that one, when the team all but eliminated that after the whistle rough stuff the rest of the series, they were mocked for it (see above).

The thing is, when it is all said and done, Aaron Rome's hit is actually a more understandable part of the game than those after-the-whistle scrums. I genuinely believe it was a mistake on his part that he went on with the hit after the brief window where it would have been safe and legal. I think they should try to cut down on these eventualities with strict penalization and rules, but that this happens on occasion is more acceptable to me, in principle, than the silly perpetuation of hack-whack-and smack hockey and all that monkey-business after the play.

I know I sound like I'm just frustrated that my team lost and that my team was the butt end of some of this, and maybe that's true to a degree, but these things were genuinely bothering me even when it looked like my team might prevail. As long as that's what hockey is, I continue to participate with one foot out the door. Having said that, I have been impressed with some of the things the Canucks franchise have tried to put forward and I am pretty interested in seeing what they can do next year. But before this season is lost to memory, I thought I'd register some of the things that bothered me as I got swept up in it all again.


Faith and Mark said...

The side of hockey that involves fighting and rioting is one of many, many reasons that we have chosen to keep our son out of minor hockey. That being said, I'm happy to have found him a place where he can play hockey just for the fun of the game. It's a tough balance for us. We know he enjoys the game, but we also know he could go far with it if he was on a different team.
I do really dislike the fact that so much of the game though does centre around the violence. It really takes away from just playing the game.

Tony Tanti said...

Some great points Jon. I have to confess that I find myself yelling for the Canucks to hit back sometimes but I also find myself agreeing with your sentiment.

I think you strike a good balance here, you're not saying you want every game to be like the all star game (no hitting) but you're taking a stand against the culture of eye-for-an-eye and accepted violence outside of the game play.

The NHL is run by good 'ol boys though and there are too many voices being heard that disagree with you for me to have any faith that things will change. Look at how easily anti-Canuck people (Don Cherry being one of them) fell all over themselves in love with Joe Thornton while simultaneously berating the Sedins. I contend that they play a very similar style and if anything the Sedins give and take more rough stuff than 'ol Joe. But Joe is Canadian and doesn't have a funny swedish accent so he gets a pass when he dives.

I hope you keep following hockey, there's more good than bad there and every sport has it's disgraceful side. I hope the NHL continues to move toward rewarding quality play and you continue to watch it.

Brett Gitzel 英 明 said...

The main difference in the playoffs and the regular season is that there is this unwritten rule that things get tougher so the refs put the whistles away. The old NHL resurfaces with the little slashes and clutches, etc. This is said to separate the real men from the chokers. I agree that the players should not rely on the PP to guide them through the playoffs, but at the same time it completely changes the dynamics of the game. In the finals, the best example is the Sedins, who just could not play the same way that a lot of the other players were playing, and that is not a jab at them. They are not physical players, but in the regular season they are strong and hard to get the puck from. Their creativity has a fair chance to flourish in the regular season. The Bruins did a great job of slowing them down with all of the little illegal stick work that is allowed in the playoffs.

I would say that the cheap stuff went both ways, the Bruins handled it better, and they had better goaltending in the end. But, if the league would correct this playoffs no penalty idea, then the old guard would quickly fade and teams would fear their opponents powerplay.

As for fighting, it needs to be taken out. I am embarrassed that the Oilers value their fighter so much. He can't play hockey, but he can fight. He played about a minute each game last year, just looking for someone to fight. When the chances arose, he was too slow to skate down the guy to fight. Just a completely embarrassing situation.

I don't think anyone respects Mike Milbury or understands why people hold his opinion so high up there.

Brett Gitzel 英 明 said...

One more note. The problem with a guy like Rome is that, in the end, he still thinks that he did nothing wrong. In fact, he said that he'd do the same thing again. What does that say to people refereeing the game? To me, it says that I am dangerous and don't let me play.

I've never played competitive hockey at all, but anyone can see that when Horton passes the puck there is a good amount of time for Rome to at least let up and brace for the collision. What he did was lower his shoulder and completely illegally level the guy. There is absolutely no respect there for Horton, and to further it along, to Horton's team, family, etc. One of these times, a player will hit their head and die.

So, the fact that he missed out on the rest of the fun is a good thing in my books. If you are going to come out and say that you are going to play the game dangerously and illegally then you can sit from here on out.

If they crack down on this stuff long enough, there will be no room on anyone's roster for a "tough guy". Why would you employ a "hockey player" if the only thing they ever did was take penalties? That's like signing a basketball player that misses all his shots.

Jon Coutts said...

Faith: I am not sure what I'd say about non-participation in youth hockey. I respect the attempt to steer clear of the ethos. Yet something could be said for trying to live and play well within it (if your child were up to the challenge, not simply using them as a pawn for fixing the system). Tough call and I trust you'll make it carefully. There are other problems that arise in minor hockey which would be troublesome to me as well. The fact that in other major sports you go through college means that it ends up being wise for those with a shot to pursue it to the bitter end. You prepare for not making it. In minor hockey it is easy to throw away not only college and career but a regular high school life as well. It is a tough system. The players who've made the NHL have really given a lot.

Tanti: I don't know if there is more good than bad, but at this point I'm probably going to try to follow the NHL next year, which I know will make you glad. Sports is such a social thing for me. I'll rarely watch or enjoy it alone. It'd be good to follow it with you again, as long as I can stand it. If I can't stand it, then it will be equally good to debate it with you too. ; )

I totally think the ol' boys of the NHL need to get over themselves. Milbury, Cherry, and even the guys who have been in charge of discipline - I think we can respect what they tell us about that other ethos and we shouldn't judge it anachronistically (it made a sort of "sense" at the time and "worked"), but that doesn't mean it needs perpetuation. And the ethnocentricity of Cherry is appalling.

Brett: Are the playoffs so different from the regular season? I hadn't thought about that. I'm not sure there is an excuse in there for the Canucks, but at the same time I can see that there could be a subtle reason why a Marchand outplays a Sedin in the playoffs and it could be partly due to the fact that the "gritty" intensity of play frees up a Marchand and stifles a Sedin just that little bit that makes a difference. Not a big difference, mind you, but enough. Its a game of centimeters and bounces and getting that extra stride. The Sedins aren't wimps by any means, but playoff hockey may just suit other players that little bit more, you know?

I disagree about the Rome hit. I mean, I don't think he should have said he'd do it again, because he clearly made a half-second error in judgment and hit Horton late. But it is true that it was a half-second error (I'm not speaking rhetorically, it literally is a half-second late from being a legit hit), and I think that if this happens and Horton bounces right back up he quite possibly does not even get penalized, let alone suspended. Assuming he doesn't mean he'd want to injure Horton again, I think that's what he means when he says he'd probably do it again. Horton is supposed to keep his head up in that situation. The late hit part is still Rome's fault, but it isn't like this was an incredibly unusual play. I'd be in favour of taking measures to eliminate such dangerous plays. But in this case even the hockey official who made the suspension said it was just interference and not a dirty hit from behind. The suspension was due to injury. On that explanation, Boychuck should have been suspended for his hit on Raymond as well. He had a half second to let up and didn't. Raymond was hurt. It is interference. Same thing, just not as obviously "ugly". And remember that Rome was hit illegallly in the third round, got a concussion, and the other player was neither penalized or suspended. So I can understand him sticking up for himself in this situation. And I certainly don't think he represents some kind of unique problem with the game. This open ice hit, as ugly as it looked, is less a concern to me than points one and three in my post.

Brett Gitzel 英 明 said...

The problem with the "he needs to keep his head up" thing is that his head was up, looking at what Lucic next move should be. I know it's his responsibility to be aware of what's going on, but he is completely unaware of Rome coming at him because he is watching the play.

I just watched it again and there is plenty of time for Rome to make a half second decision to let up a bit. If anything, he did the opposite.

This is an "ugly" play. It is not unusual because it happens too often.

The truth is that I used to do this same thing in High School football. Our running back was running up the field and I came back for a crack down block. I usually found someone who was chasing the back and unaware of me coming in on them. I was in front of them but they could not see me because they were looking the other way. I'm pretty sure that the NFL has addressed this sort of thing this past season. Their issue is usually a case where the receiver is running across looking for the ball and the DB comes across and times the hit perfectly. Concussion after concussion, and now people are realizing that it is lame to lay someone out who isn't looking.

The Mason Raymond injury was interference and it was awkward, so he got injured. Whether they gave Rome a suspension because of the injury is not relevant to the fact that when a player is skating at full speed down the ice and gets hit hard by someone coming the opposite way, that player will be at least shaken up, and hopefully very lucky to not be injured. In other words, if an injury is avoided in this situation than it is a borderline miracle. Raymond's injury was a freak thing that doesn't happen 99 out of 100 times. That is way Rome's hit is more of a problem than the Raymond thing.

Finally, the regular season is much more different than the playoffs, especially the finals. They did not want to call penalties. They often say that "we don't want the refs to decide the outcome". What this really means is that they must want the illegal plays. the slashes
and such, to decide the outcome.

In any event, I agree that there are a lot of things that need to be changed, though I continue to disagree with this Rome thing. Maybe you mean that they missed a few similar calls earlier on in the playoffs. In that case, I agree that they need to call it consistent.

Jon Coutts said...

I'm not saying the Rome hit wasn't wrong. I think it was. I just don't think it is uniquely wrong, or ugly. In other words, this is a league and a fan base that normally rewards such hits with a highlight package and great cheers. A half second late and a player watching his pass rather than looking for the hit and you've got a concussion. I agree that its ugly and it was a penalizable, even suspendable, play. But I guess I'm saying it is a symptom and not the disease. And my reference to the Raymond play is more to show how ridiculous the NHL's explanation of the suspension was. I didn't doubt Rome should have been suspended, but four games in the playoffs smelled a lot like saving-face, and as such (combined with Rome's injury in the prior round and Raymonds in this one, which was all but glossed over by I think the Canucks were right to feel hard done by.

But the point relevant to my post is that the open ice hit causes some big dangers that should probably be addressed. It could easily be number four on my list, but I'm not sure whether the answer is to eliminate them or to insist the player has to still have the puck, or what.

Tony Tanti said...

Open ice hits happen all the time. Scott Stevens made a career of hits far worse than Rome's and in his day he rarely even got a penalty.

The league could look at one of Cherry's few good ideas and take hard plastic out of shoulder pads.

Rome made a late hit (barely) and his shoulder pad caught Horton in just the right spot to knock him out. Interference, yes. Suspension, maybe a game if you want to set an example. Rome has no history of dirty play and people are only calling it ugly because of the result. What else is Rome supposed to do there? He's standing still and his man is about to go by him, if he doesn't hit him he gets burned. Horton gets rid of the puck and Rome makes the mistake of not letting up, a very common mistake in hockey.

It reminds me of Chara running a guy into the boards who was gonna get by him, difference is Pacioretty had a far more severe concussion than Horton and a broken neck. No suspension. Boychuk runs Raymond into the boards with Raymond not even having the puck, then he gives him an extra shove and breaks his back. Ugly. Way uglier than the Rome hit.

This debate can go back and forth forever and I know I'm a homer but it seems like the bias against the Canucks is blinding a lot of hockey fans to looking at this objectively.

Brett Gitzel 英 明 said...

I don't know, guys. I guess that we will need to agree to disagree on whatever it is we're disagreeing on. I'm not sure what that is;)

Saying that Rome's hit was barely late is a bit of a stretch. Horton gains the red line, passes the puck and strides. Rome is skating backwards, the puck is passed, and Rome turns to hit Horton. When you look at, say, the hit by Cooke on Savard you will see a similar outcome, but in that case the hit wasn't late at all. The problem with this hit is not so much that it's late but is because Horton has no idea it's coming. Once he passed the puck should he have swiveled his head to his right for no particular reason except for the off chance that there might be a defenseman there waiting to illegally hit him from the blindside? I guess so. I mean, I think we can all agree that this was a bad play on Rome's part and it needs to be taken out of the game. The only way to do that is to penalize and suspend the players. Now, if there were other non calls in previous rounds, then that is not right either.

Raymond's injury is ugly, but a complete fluke compared to Horton's. If someone asks the "intent to injure" question I would say that neither of these players intended to injure. The guy that hit Raymond would be quite something if he could know that a strong hit into the boards would break Raymond's back. I know it was awkward, but those kinds of hits happen all the time without incident.

I don't know if looking at things objectively means that all of the people that have a problem with hits like Rome's need to say that the Raymond hit was much worse. Scott Stevens was a dirty hockey player. Most people agree that that is what made him a good hockey player. Hopefully they can rid the league of his type. That's not saying that Rome is his type, but concussions are a big deal these days and that's what the NHL is trying to crack down on, so I can see why they could suspend Rome for the series.

Anyways, sorry if I am misunderstanding your points, Jon and Tony. It's all ugly to me, fighting being the worst of the bunch.

Good discussion.

Tony Tanti said...

I don't know Brett, calling Rome's hit from the blindside makes no sense. The hit was from the front. Comparing it to Cooke is not valid as Cooke actually came from the blindside.

And Horton does have a responsibility to look up when at mid-ice, he was admiring his pass, a mistake he's admitted. When you watch it in real time the hit isn't that late. It's late, and penalty worthy so we agree on that. I just think it's silly to compare it to other blindside hits where the head seems to have been targeted purposefully (ie: every hit by Cooke).

The logic isn't that Boychuk meant to hurt Raymond, it's that the league admitted the Rome hit wasn't blindside and said he was being suspended due to the injury. That's where Canuck fans pull their hair trying to understand why Chara and Boychuk can fracture spines on illegal plays and get no penalty. Cue the conspiracy theory about Boston having a player who's Dad is in charge of discipline.

PS: I also heard that one of the Finals refs is related to the owner of the Bruins, anyone else heard that?

Brett Gitzel 英 明 said...

Okay, I guess you've got more info than me on the league's response to all of this.

Chara should have been suspended.

Obviously I am not comparing Rome and Cooke. I said that Cooke's hit wasn't late. I was saying that both were blindsided. Of course, Cooke's is more extreme, leading with the elbow, etc. The point I was trying to make was that being late isn't even the main issue. I was unaware that Horton said he should have kept his head "up more" (it was already up, looking to his left), or somehow aware that someone was going to hit him from his blindside. Admiring the pass is true in a way, but also he would be looking to where the puck is so that he would know his next move as he enters the zone. If he passes the puck and then looks the other way, the puck might be returned to him without him noticing.

Brett Gitzel 英 明 said...

Oh, I forgot to comment on your comment about the league saying that the suspension was because of the injury. That is messed up on their part. They need to discipline the action of the player and not specifically the injury to the other player. Some player's bodies are tougher than others so it's hard to control how badly someone gets hurt.

So, I agree with you on this. Someone messed up in using that excuse. Conspiracy? I hope not. If that's true than we're only a couple rungs under Vince MacMan and the WWF.

Did campbell quit or was he fired?

Tony Tanti said...

Neither, Campbell is still employed he just isn't doing discipline anymore. Apparently it was his own decision.

I think we mostly agree now that we've clarified our positions. I still think you're misunderstanding the meaning of blindside if you think Rome's hit was from the blindside. It isn't when a player doesn't see it coming, it's more about it being from the side or slightly behind the player so that they couldn't have seen it coming. NHL changed rule 48 yesterday to make our whole discussion moot going forward anyway.

Jon Coutts said...

I think you two sorted this one out for me while I was away. Nicely done.