A referee breaks up a fight between Ben Eager and Adam Burish of the Blackhawks and Paul Gaustad and Adam Mair (not seen) of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo byJonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Little by little and day by day, time is running out on those who stubbornly cling to the unjustifiable belief that institutionalized recklessness and barely mitigated chaos is here to stay at the highest levels of professional hockey.
If they’re honest with themselves, those people are coming to understand there is a crucial choice looming in the not too-distant future: internally change the way the game is policed, or have it changed and corrected for them by external sources such as government or law enforcement.
The writing is on the wall in that regard. Look at the pressure placed on the Quebec Major Junior League by that province’s legislative body, and the alterations to the QMJHL made shortly thereafter.
And look at the shifting tide of public opinion on fighting in the game; no longer does the majority of hockey’s homeland believe it has a place.
So the choice is clear for the hockey establishment. But predictably, they’re not prepared to cede significant ground without (pardon the pun) a nasty battle.
You can make out the desperation between the lines of their increasingly irrational responses every time the issue is broached.
You can feel the uncertainty and fear of change in their fall-back, tried-and-untrue, essentially empty clichés about fisticuffs “always” being part of the game; in the grammar and basic human decency-challenged comments that undoubtedly will appear below this column and all that dare find fault with the status quo; in the systematic emasculation process that kicks into gear anytime someone highlights the deficiencies of logic in their position.
Unfortunately for them, the more people in the hockey world who come out strongly and unequivocally against the inanity and insanity – people like Rick Vaive (who was no wallflower when he played), former coach-turned-commentator Pierre McGuire and even NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell (or at least, Campbell’s wife) – the more hockey lifers will have no choice but to come to terms with how deeply mistaken and brazenly backward they have been in protecting their own.
If you understand the history of the NHL, though, it comes as no surprise the league almost gleefully forfeits its duty to the employees it can least afford to lose. From its first days of operation right through the most recent lockout, this league has schemed and screamed – with the aid of notorious dastards such as Alan Eagleson, Harold Ballard and Eddie Shore, among many others – in an effort to limit the earnings of its players as much as it could.
With the knowledge of that background, it follows that NHL team owners, one of the few groups who possess the power to affect change immediately, simply don’t care enough about the long- and short-term health of NHLers to do so.
So the names change from year to year, but the regretful behavior never does – and we go from Wayne Maki and Ted Green to Dino Ciccarelli and Luke Richardson to Marty McSorley and Donald Brashear to Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore to Alexander Perezhogin and Garrett Stafford to Chris Simon and a whole host of his misdeeds to the late Don Sanderson and now Garrett Klotz.
You can’t really say any of those men are altogether reprehensible human beings with holes where their hearts once were. They all are a product – and some, victims – of a hockey culture perverted in the name of misplaced pride and “justice” that skews more to the Charles Bronson/Bernard Goetz school than the one with a blindfolded woman holding a scale.
All of them have been finagled into accepting a responsibility that in any other athletic pursuit is left to the administrators. But not all of them believe it to be necessary any longer. Sooner or later, once the NHL is forced to change, many of them will come out of the woodwork and tell the world how thankful they are to have a safe workplace like any other athlete.
Until then, remember this when an NHLer passes away or is catastrophically injured during a part of the game that is neither legal nor moral: the league cannot use the politically popular “nobody could have seen this coming” excuse.
They all knew it was coming. They all hoped that tragedy wouldn’t befall them, but they all were prepared to let it decimate or destroy the life of somebody else.
All of these players – the same guys who love hearing that they’re through-and-through family men with good heads on their shoulders – should prove how much they love their families by doing everything in their power to protect one another.
Anything less, as the deodorant commercial goes, would be uncivilized.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.