The NHL is counter-evolutionary. The further along one gets in its season, the less important its highly skilled players become, the more significant the grisly contributions of its thugs and slugs and hackers become, and the deeper into the primordial slime the game descends. Happens every spring.
On May 5, two of the NHL's best players were sidelined indefinitely when each was slashed by an opponent's stick. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, who led the league in scoring this season, had his left hand broken by Adam Graves of the New York Rangers. Graves dealt Lemieux a vicious two-handed whack during Game 2 of the Patrick Division finals. He got a two-minute penalty. The same night, in Game 2 of the Adams Division finals, Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins, four times voted the NHL's best defenseman, had a finger broken by the Montreal Canadiens' Shayne Corson, who was not penalized. Corson, you might recall, had been suspended for four games last season after nearly taking Bourque's head off with a cross-check in the playoffs.
Bourque's coach, Rick Bowness, in the macho style of NHL coaches, made little of last week's incident. "It wasn't a vicious chop," said Bowness. "'It's something that happens 15 to 20 times in a game."
That, of course, is the problem. Players wield their sticks with virtual impunity, taking cuts at the hands, knees, elbows and shins of anyone carrying the puck. The Lemieux and Bourque injuries aren't isolated cases. During the regular season Pat LaFontaine, the gifted center for the Buffalo Sabres, had his jaw shattered by the stick of Jamie Macoun of the Calgary Flames as LaFontaine broke in alone on goal. During the first round of the playoffs, the Minnesota North Stars' Derian Hatcher broke the jaw of Kevin Miller of the Detroit Red Wings with a slash.
None of it's legal. There's no such thing as an O.K. slash. But the referees allow this stuff to go on, especially during the playoffs, when a more liberal interpretation of the rule book is enforced. Let the players decide the outcome, the referees seem to be saying. So the players do‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üthe wrong players. The thugs, the slugs and the hackers. They slash, hold, hook, board and elbow their more skilled rivals, until those marvelous skills are negated. If, out of malice or misjudgment. a hand is broken or a jaw is unhinged, it's usually no more than two minutes in the sin bin for the perpetrator, but it's two months on the sideline for the star. In the NHL, the flower in the garden that sticks its head up gets it chopped off with a Sherwood.
What is particularly loathsome about the Lemieux incident is that it may have been premeditated. Graves's violent chop to the back of Lemieux's hand was, at best, indirectly encouraged and, at worst, directly ordered by the Rangers' coach, Roger Neilson. Before the start of the Pittsburgh series, Neilson said, "Right from Game One, we want to be physical with Lemieux." In hockey, "to be physical" can mean any number of things, "to hurt" being one of them. Neilson also said he wouldn't worry about charges that the Rangers would try to knock Lemieux out of the series.
After learning that Graves had broken Lemieux's hand, Neilson was less than contrite. "They're a lot less dangerous without him," Neilson said, stating the obvious. "It's great not having to worry about Lemieux. I think it certainly helped us."
The NHL's response to all this has been, as usual, laughable, except that the matter is too serious for serious mirth. Last week league president John Ziegler, as is his habit during the NHL's showcase event, was in Europe, announcing the scheduling of two exhibition games next season. That's a biggie, John. Well done. Meanwhile, league executive vice-president Brian O'Neill, who hands out suspensions, finally gave Graves a hearing last Friday, three days after he had injured Lemieux. In the interim the Rangers had beaten the Lemieux-less Penguins in a game in which Graves scored.
O'Neill suspended Graves for four games, a wrist slap that left Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick "extremely disappointed." Said Lemieux's agent, Tom Reich, "It's a very sad commentary for hockey. This kind of gratuitous violence wouldn't be permitted in any other sport."
But hockey, NHL-style, isn't like any other sport, unless you include pro wrestling. Imagine, if you are able, a fan running onto a basketball court during the NBA playoffs, challenging the guys on the visiting bench to a fight and then being held by three players and punched at least 15 times by a fourth‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üthe fallout of which leads to...no suspensions. That is precisely what happened during a regular-season game on April 14 in Quebec, where the Sabres' resident goon, Rob Ray, administered the pummeling.
Only in the NHL. Since Ziegler took over for Clarence Campbell in 1977, the league has suffered a dizzying loss of respect on all fronts. A loss of respect between players and fans. Between referees and players. Referees have lost respect for the rule book. Worst of all, perhaps, players have lost respect for other players. There was a time, not too long ago, when it would have been unthinkable for a player to use his stick to injure a star of the magnitude of Lemieux, Bourque or LaFontaine. It didn't happen when Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr were on the ice. The players had too much respect for one another‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üand for the game.
Which is why so many of us have, sadly, lost our respect for the NHL.