Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gary Bettman is Becoming Clarence Campbell

Okay, it's late and I've had a few of this and a few of that, and I feel like talking about me for a while. This is a dark time for me. I am, by nature, a very solitary person. I have a loving wife and child, but otherwise I have no "friends." Nor do I actively seek them. I like spending my time by myself, pursuing the few interests I have in a fairly meticulous manner, and the list of interests is fairly short: writing fiction, reading, and being a hockey fan.

Sometimes, like in this blog, I get to combine those interests. Since I don't get to watch as much hockey as I would like, I mostly follow the NHL by reading about it, including both mainstream media and the blogosphere. And then I write about what I read and how it makes me feel.

The times right now, as I said, are a little dark. I've developed an allergy to writing fiction, due to my ninety-one week run writing a rock'n'roll fiction serial at ultimate-guitar.com. I'm completely burned out on fiction, and I know it will be many months before I will be able to settle on, let alone begin working on, my next fiction project. So that outlet, that "friend," is cut off from me.

My other important, fairly all-consuming friend, is hockey, specifically the Tampa Bay Lightning and the reprehensible league to which it belongs, the NHL.

It's an amazing thing, being a fan of professional sports. Where else can you both idolize a team and its players, and yet still recognize that the team, and its league in general, is basically bad on certain levels and is fully willing to mistreat its players and its fans in pursuit of profit?

For Lightning fans, think about the brief period when the team was owned by OK Hockey: you watched these guys primp their hair and fool around, while blowing money they didn't have and making an absolute joke of the team. During that time I had to mentally separate the players from the club itself, because the team was no longer a major league sports franchise; it was a running joke.

All I could do as a fan was cheer for the players and hope the two chimps in the owner's box didn't do irreparable harm or lose the team to Winnipeg before another owner came along. Hell, at one point I was trying to come up with get-rich-quick schemes, in hopes of getting rich quickly enough to buy the team away from them myself (I was going to go into the green energy industry).

Luckily Jeff Vinik took the team off Len and Oren's hands, so I didn't have to actually start doing anything with my life. But I feel the same way right now about the NHL as a league now.

I don't like the way things are right now, and I have no faith in the people that are running it.

I work in the back room of a retail store. I work alone all day, and I like it, because for the most part both co-workers and customers are not interesting to me. I listen to CDs sometimes, but typically, I listen to a Toronto sports radio station (I needn't mention its name, but I do feel compelled to say that I can't wait for TSN to launch its radio station, because I can't stand that half-informed, bigoted prick Andrew Crystal. I would gladly change stations just to avoid his name).

The station covers all major sports, but I listen for hockey. It's mostly Leafs stuff, but the broader league gets some coverage. But I've grown tired of it, because the coverage is constantly addressing the head injuries epidemic. Concussions have become so widespread (or so readily reported, where they would have been ignored ten, twenty years ago) that the physical side of the game is becoming a turnoff.

I'm not interested in fights anymore. I'm too concerned for the participants. I used to love the fighting, but now it's embarrassing to me. Have I changed? Maybe a little, but being told that these guys end up getting degenerative brain diseases from being constantly punched in the head might have something to do with it too.

Think about Todd Fedoruk, who used to be a big-time scrapper in the NHL. He got a bunch of bones in his face broken by NHL super-fighter Derek Boogaard, after after that he couldn't fight because of the plates and screws holding his pan together. Where's Boogaard right now? He's out with a concussion, because even he can't take it forever.

Every time Cam Janssen of the St. Louis Blues has one of his two or three minute fights, it gets featured on Puck Daddy's main page. I watched a few of them, but I don't watch much anymore, because I keep thinking about brain injuries. I've been media brain-washed into thinking about brain injuries all the time.

As a result, the enjoyment I'm getting out of the sport right now is significantly diminished.

Tuesday night was the Montreal-Boston game where Zdeno Chara intentionally drove Max Pacioretty into a stanchion, fracturing a bone in his neck and giving him a severe concussion. I say intentionally because a Norris-calibre defenseman knows where he is on the ice. He didn't check him as though they were against the bench and he didn't check him as though they were against the boards. He checked him into the stanchion as they came to it.

This is not a new thing, and whether or not Chara intended to break his neck is irrelevant. He intended to bounce the guy off the stanchion, no question. Chara not doing this deliberately is about as likely as Luke not knowing where the target was on the Death Star. Dude: Direct. Hit.

And whether or not Zdeno Chara has a history of "dirty play"or not is irrelevant. Scott Stevens, who was considered a dangerous-but-not-dirty (read: Canadian) player in his time, put helmetless Craig MacTavish into the stanchion when Philly and New Jersey were in the playoffs in 1995, and then cross-checked him in the back of the head when he saw he wasn't hurt. Zdeno Chara might not be Cooke-Avery-Obvious dirty, but he is dangerous.

Anyway, the whole world goes into a panic, and the NHL is the lead story on the news again.

On Wednesday, Tampa Bay beat Chicago in a shootout on a beautiful (if slightly controversial) goal by Martin St. Louis. I was happy about the win, but somehow everything seemed tainted.

Since then its been concussions, sponsorship threats, criminal investigations, non-suspensions, player call-outs, owner call-outs, and over and over again, the commissioner: Gary Bettman, Bettman, Bettman...

Gary is getting called out like bloody mad, and for good reason. Overall revenue and TV numbers might be up, but the NHL is in tatters right now: a third of its teams are up for sale, and it is practically killing its own product with a violence-sells, speed-kills style of play. Only its "product" are human beings getting their domes rattled night after night.

This guy is unpopular like crazy right now, and word has just come out that the owners have re-upped him for the next five years. He'd better hope he doesn't have to set foot in Montreal for that entire time.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been reading Charles Foran's new biography of Maurice Richard, which is part of Penguin Canada's Extraordinary Canadians series. It discusses the March 17, 1955 riot in Montreal, where the anger of the mob was directed at then-NHL president Clarence Campbell.

On the surface, the mob was angry about Campbell's decision to suspend Maurice Richard for the last three games of the season and the playoffs for repeated chopping Boston Bruin Hal Laycoe on the head with his stick, and when that was taken away, chopping Laycoe again with the stick of another player.

But beneath that, there was the anger that the NHL exposed Richard to horrible physical and verbal violence every time he stepped on the ice. He was the most talented player in the sport, and other players tried to slow him down by hacking and slashing him (his attack on Laycoe was precipitated by the Boston player's own stick to the side of Richard's head, which drew blood). The league would not defend the star, but it would punish the star for defending himself.

At that time the NHL league office was in the English part of Montreal, and Campbell showed up for every Habs home game. Cue riot.

The circumstance is vastly different this time; this time a Bruins player cracked Hab and escaped punishment. But this time, it's not just French Canadians who are angry. Everyone who is sick of these head hits is angry that the league still isn't responding to the spiralling head injuries. And the league appears not to care that people don't like what they're seeing.

And Bettman, wrapped up to his ass in the Phoenix affair, seems to still think everything is copacetic, just like Clarence Campbell did when he took his seat in the Montreal Forum in 1955.

I have to tell you, if Bettman announced he was going to attend a game in Montreal in the next few days and then actually showed for it, there would be another riot. And honestly, he would need the biggest stones on the planet to try it. I can't see him showing his face in Montreal ever again without the military being on hard.

But that's where Gary is now, just like Campbell was: showing up to prove he isn't afraid, but not comprehending the bigger picture. Just like the league itself.

And fans like me get to sit back and wish they could just talk about great goals or great games.

But like I said: these are dark days.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree. You opinion is that it was intentional. It's not a fact. You are saying that if the stanchion is not there, he doesn't make the same exact hit. That's unlikely. Only the outcome is different. That's the problem.

    As far as your Bettman criticism, where have you been? You act as if Bettman hatred is new. You realize we lost an entire season under this idiots watch? And he was loathed long before that.

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