Hey, Nation, did you miss us?
It feels great to be back in my literary hole in the wall with a little bit of a new look and lots more chances to tell what I think, what I believe and what I know, sometimes all at once. With Sports Illustrated helping to drive the FanNation train, this will be a bigger and better place for all the Citizens and for sure it will be fun.
Taking a few days from the blog, got me thinking about something I really love—hockey. Yeah, that’s right, hockey.
To those who know and those who take a little time to learn, hockey is a beautiful sport—faster than any in which engines or horses aren’t involved, as physical as you’d like and, at its best level, more skilled than all the others. While you could argue those thoughts, here’s one thing you can’t argue: No sport shoots itself in the foot, no sport gets more literal and figurative black eyes, no sport makes lead out of gold more often than hockey does.
A few weeks ago, when the National Football League’s offseason news was more police blotter than free agents, we called for the NFL players to exert pressure on their own and support strong changes in behavior. We cheer the moves the NFL and its players have taken
Now it’s time for National Hockey League players to take their game and themselves in hand and stop acting so dumb.
Case in point: Saturday night Jamie McLennan comes on as a backup goalie for the Calgary Flames who are tied with the Detroit Red Wings in games at 2 apiece but trailing badly in Game 5 by 5-1 late in the third period. So 18 seconds into his first playoff appearance, McLennan gets ticked off because Johan Franzen of the Wings is spun around by a Flame defender and Franzen’s stick catches McLennan on the leg. This is in the course of the action and went unpenalized.
McLennan decides to take it to his own court of justice, and with his big goalie stick he spears Franzen in the belly. McLennan is tossed, and now he is suspended, suspended from a playoff his team is eliminated from, and the questions you hear are whether the five-game ban is too much or too little.
Who cares if it's too much or too little. Not enough people are talking about the sheer stupidity of what McLennan did. No one’s talking about the fact that a few years ago, McLennan was honored by his teammates, the media and the League with the Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who best displays perseverance and dedication to hockey. This came after McLennan was stricken with bacterial meningitis, was in a coma and intensive care and lost 30 pounds and had to learn to walk all over again. I spent a lot of time with him the night he won the award and just thinking about that night and then thinking about the spear makes me shudder.
But McLennan has played 10 seasons since his illness and now perhaps ends his career with that slash. Hockey Night in Canada broadcasters called it imbecilic and that’s a good word for it. Asinine, despicable, outrageous all would do. Surely some who don’t get what’s happening on the ice might also call it criminal but we refrain.
Think about it, a player who was honored by the game for coming back from the actual edge of death to play and play well in the NHL, decided in a moment that he would ‘take out’ another player in a way that could have seriously injured that player. It boggles the mind. But that’s what hockey seems to always face.
Throughout the playoffs there have many opportunities for the hockey bashers to take their swings:
- Anaheim’s Brad May was suspended 3 games after punching Minnesota’s Kim Johnsson. Johnsson, one of the Wild’s top defensemen. Johnsson missed the final game of that series with an injury while the Ducks got to replace the banished May on the roster.
- The last period of a Rangers’ blowout victory over the Thrashers spins into a silly mess as the Thrashers, no chance in the game and little chance in the series, decide it’s now fight night. Even former 50-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk got in on the fun. Not smart.
I care so much because I worked in the game for most of a decade and came to understand what makes this such a wonderful sport. But I also know the players are the only ones who can change the behavior. Suspensions and fines from the League don’t do it. Frankly, the fans do keep coming and buildings are pretty much full. But in the US, nationally televised games are pretty much unwatched. Hard to find, for sure, but you’d track them down if you cared to.
The McLennan spear came at the end of an unsightly stretch of hockey from both sides, fights, throwdowns, cheap shots. All the kind of stuff to make a possible new fan a definite non-fan. Some of that junk involved Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who should know better, and some involved Red Wing rockhead Todd Bertuzzi, who apparently cannot know better.
Listen to Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek. He’s a two-time MVP, six-time Vezina winner and he has the jam to make these comments: "I was really disappointed. Not a little, but a lot. Their goalie, what he did and Iginla, he's the captain of the team and should be in charge. Those last 5 or 6 minutes if you were watching on TV, I think it was sort of disappointing.”
To say Johan Franzen got payback by scoring the playoff winning goal in the second overtime of a beauty of a game very early Monday morning is to miss the point. It’s great for Franzen and his Red Wings teammates. But for a bit of luck, Franzen could easily have been in a Detroit area hospital, not at the Calgary Saddledome as Sunday turned to Monday.
Why should we care? It’s only hockey, you say? Many of you do say that. I know. I’ve heard it and I hear it. But if you would take a few minutes to hunt down the location on your cable where Versus resides and watch a playoff game or two, you’ll get it. That is unless you get a stick in the gut for your trouble.