Lack of suspension for Emery is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – and could lead to further restrictions on NHL fighting

Adam Proteau
186588220 Emery

The ugly, indefensible spectacle involving the Flyers and Capitals Friday in Philadelphia makes life easier for those of us who have been arguing the NHL must rid itself of superfluous, nonsensical fighting. However, it does no favors for the league or the sport – and the disgust it was met with in virtually all corners is an indictment of the archaic, old-school mentality that stubbornly supports this egregious garbage.

When I watched Emery skate the length of the ice during a line brawl to needlessly goad Caps counterpart Braden Holtby into a fight, I thought the NHL would have no choice but to suspend Emery.

But I was wrong. And when the league announced yesterday Emery wasn’t going to face supplementary discipline, I wasn’t happy. The league is saying it has no precedent within the rulebook to punish him, but it didn’t have a precedent to sentence Sean Avery to anger management in 2008 for untoward remarks he made about Dion Phaneuf’s then-girlfriend-and-now-wife Elisha Cuthbert.

Indeed, this is a league that, in the past, has reacted swiftly and meaningfully to get something out of the game it doesn’t believe ought to be part of it. The most famous example came again in 2008, when Sean Avery (yes, him again) waved his stick in Martin Brodeur’s face during a game.

In response, the NHL redefined the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty overnight. That’s right, overnight. It wasn’t wanted in the game, so it was gone. Like any pro sports commissioner, Gary Bettman’s executive power is vast, meaning it’s fair to criticize him for not making an example of Emery and thereby putting the fear of the hockey gods into any player foolish enough to consider imitating Emery’s actions in a game.

That said, after speaking with a high-ranking league source Sunday afternoon, I’m not as angry as I was. Because when you scratch the surface, you see there is a precedent the league is following by not suspending Emery – and that precedent could and should lead to meaningful change and further restrictions on over-the-top fighting.

To wit: think back to March of 2010 and the decision made by then-chief-NHL-disciplinarian Colin Campbell to not suspend Matt Cooke for his vicious blindside hit on Marc Savard.

At the time, I was as incensed as anyone Campbell did nothing. But there are people in the league who believe that, had Campbell suspended Cooke, it would have been easier for the status quo to be maintained and a headshot rule might have been much slower in arriving. And Campbell, in his own way, was challenging the league to come up with a better rule governing headshots. Cooke hit Savard March 7 of that year. And what do you know – three days after the unpunished hit (and after a regularly scheduled GM meeting), the NHL had a new, greatly improved headshot rule.

Fast-forward to the present day. When Emery chose to indulge his inner caveman on Holtby, those hard-core, pro-fighting people were some of the people clamoring the loudest to see VP of player safety Brendan Shanahan and his department come down hard on him. Why? Because they know how untenable their position becomes without punishment. But the Flyers/Caps gong show was a product of a culture that not everyone in the league agrees with anymore – and althought it may seem counterproductive, this is an effective way of letting those fighting apologists twist in the wind.

You guys want to pretend all NHL fights are admirable, Jarome-Iginla-on-Vincent-Lecavalier acts of chivalry? Not a chance. You have to wear this Emery incident. You have to own it. And once you see how the grand majority of hockey fans are repulsed by it, you have to accept that change is inevitable.

Now, change in this case isn’t going to come within 72 hours as it did after the Cooke/Savard hit. But the next NHL GM meeting is Nov. 12 and I fully expect a number of reasonable league executives will move to ensure mimicking Emery’s actions will be greatly discouraged through a much tougher new rule that could be implemented as soon as next season. Maybe that rule automatically suspends any player who instigates a fight with a goalie (and that includes the opposing goalie) for 10 games. Maybe that rule harshly punishes any goalie who so much as crosses center ice to get to the opposition’s goalie as Emery did.

Regardless of the specifics, the point here is a positive one: yes, seeing Emery escape supplementary discipline is tough to swallow. But if it means the league will respond in the coming weeks to substantially mitigate the number of similar on-ice eyesores we see in the future, I’m willing to live with it.