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TWIG…. The shock of the recent Boston Bruins Shawn Thornton attack on the Pittsburgh Penguins Brooks Orpik is fading a bit with the general public, but it is not receding from my memory very quickly at all. I’ll allay some of that to the short attention span of the herd these days. But for me, hockey is something I care quite deeply about, the National Hockey League is something I care very deeply for. So, the thought of what Thornton did that night has been slow to fade for me. It’s instances such as these that give the anti-hockey crowd more ammunition in their rants against the game and it’s Byzantine culture.
Byzantine I say? Yes. This game and it’s culture have had it’s head stuck up it’s collective 1940’s arse for way too long. That’s right, you are not seeing any typo’s here. I have been watching this game and this league for about 53 years now. When I was younger, the type of incidents that would rival the Thornton display were fairly infrequent. I can recall the Teddy Green stick swinging incident in 1969 between he and the St. Louis Blues Wayne Maki. It was ugly and Green was hurt badly, missing the remainder of the season. He came back, but many would say he was never the same player. Then we had the Bruins Dave Forbes-NorthStars Henry Boucha stick incident in 1975 that left Boucha badly hurt and Forbes under investigation for possible litigation by the State of Minnesota. Boucha’s career was effectively ended by the eye injury he suffered.
In 1988 we had the Dino Ciccarelli-Luke Richardson stick swinging attack, with Dino being the aggressor. Dino of course was with the NorthStars at the time and Richardson was a Maple Leaf. These are but 3 incidents that stand out to me from the games past and in addition to these we have had other player on player attacks, player on fan attacks, (although as a hockey guy, I feel somewhat that the idiot fans who were attacked were probably asking for it) and so on. In the recent past, if you Google or consult Wikipedia for NHL player suspensions, they are all neatly mapped out for you in chronological order. You can see the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for yourself up close and personal.
With the new attention being given to intentional head contact, you will see an abundance of the suspensions have been doled out for those infractions, while others are still being issued for other types of player stupidity. The headliners of course are those that draw the double digit number of games suspended such as the one Thornton received for his attack on Orpik. 15 games was the verdict and Thornton and the NHLPA will be trying to find an avenue to get that number reduced. This seems absurd as Orpik is a dues paying member of that organization as well. Go figure.
I get it that the game has a macho edge to it. I always tried to teach players the correct way to body check, the correct way to receive a body check and the proper time to issue one. I never taught hitting for the sake of hitting. I was taught that body contact in the game had to have a purpose, a reason. I was also taught that you should give some respect to your opposition. I always shook my head at the amateur coach who would be loudly bellowing at kids games; HIT somebody! The mere words suggest a lack of a game plan or strategy.
The league is bigger now then back when I was young, and there are the accompanying number of players. So it stands to reason that the number of incidents would follow suit and they have. I can’t tell you about any type of proportion or relativity, I haven’t done that sort of research. It just seems to me that nowadays we are hearing about major or multiple suspendible actions occurring now with more frequency then at anytime in the past. I can think of no argument against this.
Whenever I hear debate about changing the game, I always hear the common refrain that it will take years to change it, years to change the culture. What a copout. Those that are entrusted with the future of the sport, the guardians of the game can’t see the forest for the trees. I trust that most fans have seen or know about the Thornton incident by now. If you are one of those whose charge it is to grow the game, what do you say to the family that had their 4 or 5 year old child at that game, who is thinking about getting involved, may have had seats close by and witnessed what took place right before their eyes?
I get it that Thornton incidents don’t happen all the time in the league, but fights do. How do you explain this to the potential youth hockey player and his or her family? Is that conducive to growing the game? Not in my book. Well look here son, there is NO fighting in youth hockey, but if you get good and keep moving up, you will have to fight sooner or later to keep your spot in the scheme of things. Really? And if you don’t want to you will be stigmatized and frowned upon as “weak”. Why would I want my kid exposed to this? How do we go through a 2 week Olympic tourney with nary a fight and love the hockey and give it fantastic TV ratings?
That’s because the game CAN do without it. It’s time for the NHL to grow up and get with it. It’s time for Gary Bettman to show the same leadership he shows for the owners when it’s time to make them money. It’s simple Gary, you go to a Board of Governors meeting and say we are not going to do this anymore. We are moving in a new and better direction. All of the old arguments for fighting in the game do not work anymore. We have smart grids, smart cars and even our phones are smart. How about the National Hockey League? Smart, or… PEACE
Marc Elliott is a free lance sports opinion writer who splits time between his hometown in Illinois and Minnesota. Elliott grew up in the Twin Cities with many of his childhood neighbors working or playing for the Vikings and Twins. He participated in baseball, football and hockey before settling on hockey as his own number one sport. Elliott recently wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County News Chronicle for ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710AM in Duluth.