The National Hockey League is an embarrassment.
This is not a new development, but it’s worth revisiting. As long as the league condones the sort of mindless, reckless violence we’ve seen this week, it will never be anything more than MMA On Ice.
To contend the carnage that went on these past few days between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers is simply a part of game is the sort of Neanderthal thinking that keeps hockey in the dark ages.
It is bloodlust, pure and simple, and not really worth taking seriously.
Will this be the light-bulb moment when the NHL finally exorcises this wretched stain that holds back any chance of it becoming a truly major sport?
Not a chance.
For some reason, the league thinks that one grown man grabbing another grown man by the hair and slamming him face-first to the ice is not even worthy of a single-game suspension.
Which, in the natural order of the NHL, leads to the next game transforming into Fight Club - except there’s nothing secretive about the silly, sorry little enterprise.
It’s proudly staged in a giant arena for the entire world to see.
Apparently, the first rule of NHL Fight Club is talk about it all you want.
There is no apparent shame in these disgraceful displays. Never has been. Just a shrug of the shoulders and the ridiculous contention that it’s simply hockey players being hockey players.
We have long been told that these guys need occasional bursts of mayhem - the sort of acts that would get them arrested in the real world - to blow off steam in their high-speed, hard-hitting endeavor.
What a crock.
There are plenty of non-combat sports that fit this mold, but the NHL is the only one that allows its players to punch each other in the nose every now and then with nothing more than a brief foray to the penalty box awaiting them as punishment.
Instead of easing tensions, the NHL’s hands-off approach to fists flying and other assorted acts of brutality - hey, the players also carry sticks that double as effective weapons - leads inevitably to the sort of criminal behavior we’ve seen this week
This latest black eye for the league was sparked by a familiar source: notorious Capitals goon Tom Wilson, who already has quite the impressive rap sheet for a wide array of illegal hits over the years.
In Monday night’s game against the Rangers, a scrum broke out at the side of the Capitals’ net after the whistle blew. Wilson wound up on top of Pavel Buchnevich and figured that would be a good time to show how tough he is, so he delivered a punch to the back of the Rangers player’s head.
Coming to the aid of his teammate, Artemi Panarin jumped on Wilson’s back. But the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Panarin was no match for the 6-4, 220-pound Wilson, who grabbed his opponent by the hair and slammed him face-first to the ice like a rag doll.
Now, it seemed obvious to everyone that Wilson was headed for another suspension, with some rightly arguing that he deserved to be suspended for the rest of the season - including the playoffs.
Especially when news broke that Panarin would miss the final three games of the Rangers‘ season with what was vaguely described as a lower-body injury. (Side note: In the NHL, they won’t be more specific about injuries other than describing which half of the body they occurred for fear an opponent will specifically target the ailing body part the next time that player is on the ice. Yes, this is actually a thing.)
Turns out, a suspension for Wilson was obvious to everyone except the Capitals (their coach, Peter Laviolette, ludicrously described it as nothing more than “a physical play’) and the NHL’s even more absurdly titled head of player safety, George Parros.
Parros doled out a $5,000 fine for the hit on Buchnevich - and didn’t even mention the mauling of Panarin.
That was it.
Incensed, the Rangers issued a scathing statement that charged the league with “a dereliction of duty” and blasted Parros, a former player, as “unfit to continue in his current role.”
No argument there, yet the problem runs far deeper than this one nasty incident and one harebrained suit in the league office.
This is about a league that has taken tepid steps to rein in its unwritten code of cheap shots and unrestrained brawling - the kind that led to sick jokes such as “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out” - but has never been willing to fully break from barbarism as a supposed selling point.
Maybe they view all those “Best Hockey Brawls” videos on YouTube as a sign that this is what the fans want. As if pouring salt on a self-inflicted wound, the NHL levied an extraordinary $250,000 fine against the Rangers for their demeaning assessment of Parros.
Anyway, when the Capitals and the New Yorkers met again on Wednesday, with Wilson still allowed on the ice, one didn’t have to be Carnac the Magnificent to figure out what would happen next.
The Rangers were in the mood for some vigilante justice.
Three fights broke out at center ice as soon as the puck was dropped. Before the game was a minute old, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith got into it with Wilson. And, yes, two more fights erupted just past the four-minute mark.
“I think it was good,” Smith said proudly. “We were just trying to stick up for our teammate. It was a good response for sure.”
No, it wasn’t.
A much better response would be for the league to follow the path of the NBA, which cracked down mightily after the infamous 2004 “Malice at the Palace” melee spilled into the stands, involving both players and fans.
One can’t help but wonder if all the criticism heaped upon a mostly black basketball league - up to and including the players being called “thugs” - had anything to with race. Especially when a mostly white hockey league has endured far more cringeworthy episodes, including players climbing into the stands, but it’s largely dismissed as simply being part of the game.
There’s no reason for that view to prevail any longer.
Hockey is a graceful, magnificent game when played the right way. The league where it should be played at the highest level needs to realize that the only way to grow the sport beyond its niche fan base is to weed out all the needless savagery.
Until that changes - and we’re not holding our breath - the first rule of the NHL should be: Don’t talk about the NHL.
It’s too embarrassing.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry196 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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