Has Mike Milbury surpassed Don Cherry as the go-to guy on Hockey Night in Canada? In light of the Zdeno Chara incident last week (and Milbury's turn on fighting), anticipation was high Saturday to hear from both Hockey Night personalities over Chara's devastating hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty - the closest, some feel, we've come to a fatality in an NHL game since Bill Masterton died following a 1968 contest.
While neither Cherry nor the former New York Islanders general manager exactly seized the moment, Milbury nudged ahead on all scorecards with a lucid agenda for the sport's GMs and owners to deal with criticism from the Canadian Prime Minister, corporate heads and players over the game's overall safety. Given several days to find a new angle, Cherry simply regurgitated talking points heard throughout the week from others.
Cherry first buried the lead with some predictable fawning on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer. When he finally got to the Chara story, Cherry trotted out his usual grab bag of ad hominem attacks. Air Canada, being based in Montreal, was disqualified from comment. Canadiens owner Geoff Molson got a tongue lashing for his arena's apparent safety failings. Politicians were media hogs.
While Chara's five-minute foul produced a catastrophic result, Cherry defended the league for its lack of a suspension. It was, he felt, the clichéd "hockey play" like others on his video reel. Bizarrely, he insisted Chara deserved a 20-game suspension or none at all. Just another case of unwinding the police tape with a nothing-to-see-here shake of the head.
Milbury didn't touch the suspension or the hit, preferring to advance the story by asking GMs this week at the general meeting to decide, "What's an acceptable risk for players?" Milbury, who seemed restrained in his Hockey Night's Hotstove segment (perhaps his Boston roots?), urged a panel to create a comprehensive, not knee-jerk reaction. Milbury was cogent and remarkably restrained for his often-voluble self. In doing so he's pressing Cherry to raise his game.
The GMs already have a partial solution in the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings. The NHL's two best teams don't goon and intimidate. Hockey Night (and its TSN/ Sportsnet equivalent) don't seem able to grasp this salient fact. They lionize the Matt Cookes, Trevor Gillies and Colton Orrs as being essential to winning hockey. But the Canucks and Red Wings play another, safer way. And they win. Imagine that.
Hockey Night's performance in the face of the (sometimes hysterical) firestorm was still better than that of the NHL, with commissioner Gary Bettman putting his hands over his ears while saying, "La-la-la-la, I can't hear you" to the Prime Minister, corporate leaders and media commentators last week.
Whether Bettman likes it or not, this is hockey's Dale Earnhardt moment, the time when the speed of the cars and the aggression of the drivers overwhelms the race track. As NASCAR did when its brightest star Earnhardt was killed at the Daytona 500 in 2001, hockey has to take its foot off the accelerator and take stock of how much risk is acceptable. (Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in NASCAR within a year; since revising its safety standards, no NASCAR driver has died since.) No matter how impulsive Air Canada's media onslaught seemed, who wants a dead NHL player photographed lying in front of your corporate logo on the boards? Bettman's petulant response to the week's criticism, however, indicates he's still got the pedal to the floor and his fingers in his ears.
Neither Cherry nor Milbury addressed the NHLPA's mediocre history on safety issues. The union's diligence on workplace safety was left to former player Mathieu Schneider, newly minted as hockey mentor to current executive director Don (What's a Puck?) Fehr.
On Hockey Night's pregame show Saturday, Schneider cited Chara's lack of premeditation as the basis for absolution. But intent is just one element of culpability in courts. Chara's act illustrates the difference between premeditation and negligence - both punishable. What we really wanted to know - and did not find out - was whether the PA had intervened on behalf of Chara or Pacioretty in the NHL's hearings last week. The PA has had a lamentable habit of protecting aggressors over victims within its own membership.