Unchecked violence and cheating plagues NHL

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday. If the sports world has any sense in its pretty little head, it would squarely focus on the start of these playoffs. Certainly, all hockey news should be about playoff teams angling for position and gearing up for a title chase.

But hockey is not currently focused on the playoffs. Hockey is still dealing with the aftermath of, and the fallout from, the Todd Bertuzzi incident. The most-watched hockey video clip, almost a month later, is still Bertuzzi’s disgusting on-ice attack from behind on Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore.

The assault has been analyzed from top to bottom and frame by frame like no hockey footage piece since Brett Hull’s skate wandered too near the net, with the widest variety of opinions stemming from the incident in the “What’s wrong with hockey?” category. Journalists all over have floated many interesting theories about the real meaning behind the hit (perhaps the most interesting of which was Jim Kelley’s commentary on ESPN.com that puts much of the blame on the Canadian tradition of “fighting for your place” in hockey).

Why do I mention the incident after it has been so completely scrutinized? It was an extreme case of violence in a sport that has occasionally become a parody of itself because of violence. (What’s the old joke about going to the fights and seeing a hockey game break out?) Thus, everyone has seized this episode as an example of what’s wrong with hockey.

Nobody is worried about what’s wrong with hockey during the Stanley Cup playoffs, though, because nothing is wrong with playoff hockey. Apart from the occasional war, hockey gets cleaner come April for one simple reason. During the playoffs, the penalties for cheating and violence are immediate and dramatic. In a seven-game playoff series, no player wants to take the chance of indirectly causing a goal against his team. A goal can decide a game. A game can decide a series. No player wants to be responsible for his team’s demise.

Therefore, then, what’s wrong with hockey is only wrong during the regular season. During the regular season, the penalties for deviant behavior are not as dramatic or immediate as during the playoffs. Hence, the league and officials must be responsible for the control of the game – and they are not cracking down.

The league has always taken a “turn the other cheek” method of dealing with violence and cheaters in the NHL. Most of the suspensions and fines handed down by the league are lightweight stuff, but that is not the problem. The real problem is that the “turn the other cheek” methodology has drifted down to the on-ice officiating.

Bertuzzi, and most of the rest of the league, believe that they must police themselves because the league is not going to do anything about the dirty play in a regular-season game. It is this belief, in my opinion, that is what’s wrong with professional hockey.

In the aftermath of the Bertuzzi hit, there were many calls for the league to get serious about consequences of such actions. In my opinion, the league could get serious in a better way: The next time Vancouver’s Matt Cooke nearly ends a guy’s season with a slash to the ankle behind the play, or the next time Colorado’s Peter Forsberg flops around like a wounded fish in search of a penalty, the officials need to crack down, and the league needs to back them up.

It is not the big, infamous incidents that are killing hockey. It is the little things: the minor brawls, dirty hits and blatant cheating that the league chooses not to see but I cannot ignore. The playoffs do not need a cleanup in this area – but the regular season does, and it is up to the league to orchestrate it.

Until it does, it can expect more of the same: The most famous clip this season is not going to be a pretty goal or an important save – it is going to be a guy’s head bouncing off the ice. And that means that something is indeed very wrong with the NHL.

Jon Marthaler welcomes comments at [email protected]