In defense of vigilante justice
I put a lot of work into determining that fighting and dressing tough guys doesn’t help a team win all that much. The remainder of the value of a fighter in the lineup is determinant in protecting your star players, the idea being that a player won’t be touched by an opposing force by fear of him being forced to answer the bell.
That may have worked 30 or 40 years ago. “The players police themselves” is sort of the old cliché. But the NHL has gotten so big, so fast, and the fighter has become a market inefficiency. At one time, the team’s enforcer was just a regular player with a little bit of extra brawn. He could still score 20. It’s only since the mid-80s or so that hockey has begun systematically developing players who can only do one thing.
And those players, big in the NHL through the pre-lockout era and in today’s junior ranks, are slowly subsiding. They can’t skate. They can’t shoot. They can’t hit a guy with the puck because they can’t catch up to the play. The teams that routinely dress these men at the higher levels get beaten on the scoreboard more often than not. But they have a theoretical on-ice purpose.
The only reason that a goon like Trevor Gillies or Zenon Konopka or Zac Rinaldo ever see a minute of ice time in the NHL essentially boils down to one simple truth: teams do not trust the National Hockey League rulebook to protect their own players.
Sure, old-school football analysts decry the modern game, wherein defensive players are routinely punished for throwing the weight of their helmet into a defenseless receiver. Borderline roughing-the-passer penalties extend drives, making it annoying on the average fan. But the NFL noticed a problem—Injured offensive stars, particularly quarterbacks. Football has never been more fun that it is right now, with a number of NFL quarterbacks on pace to surpass 5,000 yards on the season. The star players are safer and the game is more entertaining to watch.
While Brendan Shanahan had a very strong beginning to his tenure as NHL Director of Player Safety, with a number of lengthy suspensions for headshots and hits from behind in the pre-season, a few acts have gone unpunished since the regular season began. The most recent case involves Boston’s Milan Lucic barreling in to Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.
The NHL will deny it, but the reason that Shanahan was brought in as head disciplinarian over Colin Campbell is because a blogger, Tyler Dellow found a bunch of emails last season that saw Campbell complain over penalties issued to his son Gregory. Zdeno Chara, a Bruin, earned no supplemental discipline for a check that saw Montreal’s Max Pacioretty miss 22 games with a neck injury and a concussion. Campbell didn’t discipline players in games that involved his son, as part of league policy. The job fell on Campbell’s underling, Mike Murphy, to look the other way in these situations.
In an email sent to me last season by NHL VP Bill Daly, he said that the Dellow story “reaffirmed that the entire hockey community has complete confidence in Colie’s honesty, integrity and ability to do his job in an even-handed, unbiased manner”. The idea was that having Murphy in charge of Bruins games reduced “the appearance of conflict, not conflict itself.”
So the NHL let Campbell step down in the offseason and brought aboard Shanahan. There is now no more appearance of conflict, but the game still progresses into the future at a snail’s pace. No team wants to employ goons, and Buffalo, admirably, have not carried one since Andrew Peters in the 2009 season and remarkably went without a single scrap this past pre-season.
Buffalo try to dress hockey players. They have a pest in Patrick Kaleta, but he scores a goal every ten games and is pretty good defensively. He’s already fought seven times this year, but apparently that isn’t enough.
When Lucic ran Miller, he took advantage of a goaltender playing the puck. He hit him in the head at full speed. There are a number of infractions in place that are designed to protect Miller in this situation, such as charging, goalie interference, or the all-inclusive targeting the head. Lucic earned two minutes for goalie interference. Miller is out with a concussion.
Lucic was not suspended, and all Shanahan could say “it’s unfortunate that Miller was hurt” but “I saw nothing egregious about this hit that would elevate it to supplemental discipline.”
Whatever. This is trash-in, trash-out. The NHL rulebook, designed to protect players and let them play hockey, was ignored in this situation. No specific rule was quoted to protect Lucic in this instance, but rather the idea that hockey players need to toughen up.
So where does Buffalo go from here, if the NHL won’t allow them retribution? Does Kaleta run Tim Thomas? Do the Sabres sign a bunch of plugs for a week and start a line brawl? This is obviously something that’s going to get out of hand and the Sabres are understandably pretty angry. Miller even stepped out of his element to call Lucic “a gutless piece of shit.” He is the second goalie this season to miss time due to a collision with the head from an opponent, the first being Toronto’s James Reimer.
The bottom-line is that if the NHL fails to protect its players, they must assume responsibility for the consequences. When the Sabres and Bruins meet again on November 23, there will be a whole lot of hype and bulletin-board material. Players will swap barbs through the press and the NHL will have a couple of supervisors on hand. It’s so expected, because it happens time and time and time again.
So, whatever. If there’s no punishment. Run the other teams star players. Run them, their goalie, anybody capable of skating, until there’s nobody left to play. Until NHL teams make like the Red Army team against the Broad St. Bullies and leave. I’d rather a game where the stars are allowed to play, and players earn more respect for scoring multiple-goal games than they do for breaking their noses in a fight. But that’s not the direction the NHL is aiming for right now, apparently, so they’ll let things proceed naturally until they hit the natural boiling point.