The only reason Brendan Shanahan, Gary Bettman and their fellow NHL executives are sitting amidst the wreckage of the Stanley Cup playoffs, topped by an inexcusable assault by serial offender Raffi Torres, is their lack of courage in their own convictions.
For that matter, every NHL general manager, head coach, owner, player – any of those who bitterly protested last fall’s crackdown on headshots – can take an equal share of the blame for this disaster.
Almost one year ago, NHL commissioner Bettman announced to great fanfare that Shanahan, who made himself the darling of the league governors and the media with his many ideas on how the game should be improved, would take over from Colin Campbell as the league disciplinarian. There was to be a new approach, the NHL commissioner said, one led by Shanahan that would show the league actually does take the issue of player safety seriously.
Funny, the new approach produced the same old results. In the latest assault, Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa had to be taken to the hospital Tuesday night because Torres, now employed by the Phoenix Coyotes, tried to cripple him with a late shot to his head when Hossa was vulnerable. Hossa and the league are damned fortunate he was able to leave the hospital under his own power. He will not play Thursday when the series resumes. When he can play again is unknown.
Torres will not play, either, although losing a marginal forward hurts the Coyotes far less than losing a star does the Blackhawks. He is suspended indefinitely pending an in-person hearing Friday at the NHL head office in New York.
For us cynics, it was all so predictable.
Every ballyhooed attempt at changing the culture of the NHL, be it obstruction or headshots, follows the same pattern. Sweeping changes are introduced; solemn promises are made that this time the NHL will stay the course; at first, an honest attempt is made and the penalties and suspensions follow; but then comes the uproar from general managers, coaches, owners and even the players and the NHL backs down.
And so it went this time.
Shanahan started strongly in the pre-season, dishing out suspensions for players who even looked like they wanted to hit someone on the head. His enthusiasm peaked with Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman James Wisniewski, who was suspended for four pre-season games and eight regular-season games for trying to separate Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck’s head from his body.
Over the next several weeks, complaints from GMs and others poured into the NHL’s head office. When the Blue Jackets fell flat coming out of the gate, knowing fingers were pointed at Shanahan for taking away the great Wisniewski - although the last time I checked no one outside of Columbus GM Scott Howson mistook him for Bobby Orr. The league’s zeal is undermining our team, it’s trying to take the physicality out of the game - all the usual claptrap.
So Shanahan and Bettman backed off, although it was strenuously denied, of course. The suspensions trickled off. What Wisniewski did to draw a 12-game suspension became two or three or that good old $2,500 (U.S.) fine.
Once the NHL threw in the towel, the chance to force the players to adjust the way they made hits and make the game safer over the course of the regular season was lost. By the time the playoffs arrived, with the stakes and the emotions ratcheted up, it was no surprise when the assault and injury count skyrocketed.
So here we are at the NHL’s most important time of the year and the league is a mess. Instead of talking about the Nashville Predators having the Detroit Red Wings on the ropes in their playoff series, or the Florida Panthers’ great come-from-behind win, it’s more noise about players trying to maim each other.
Shanahan set the tone, as hockey folks like to say, when he gave one of those laughable $2,500 fines instead of a suspension to Predators defenceman Shea Weber for slamming Red Wing Henrik Zetterberg’s face into the glass in the first game of that series. It was the equivalent of dropping the green flag at the Indianapolis 500.
Missed was the chance to alter the behaviour of a hockey thug like Torres, or drum him out of the league if necessary. Now, with the violence mounting by the night, Shanahan and the NHL are trying to play catch-up.
A look at Torres’s history tells you all you need to know about the NHL’s resolve. Actually, forget his history, which is well-known to hockey fans, just take his last year.
On April 5, 2011, as the regular season wound down, Torres, then wearing a Vancouver Canucks uniform, was suspended for four games for laying out Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers with an elbow to the head. In his first game back, in the Canucks’ playoff series against the Blackhawks, Torres made a dangerous hit on defenceman Brent Seabrook. That, incidentally, was one year to the day from Tuesday’s attack on Hossa.
Campbell, in the final days of his oft-criticized reign over player discipline, provoked much outrage when he did not suspend Torres. Then came Shanahan and the new era.
On Dec. 29, Torres, now a hit man for the Coyotes, was at it again. He threw an elbow at Jan Hejda of the Colorado Avalanche. Sheriff Shanahan nailed our now serial offender with a $2,500 fine not three months after he was dishing out 12-game suspensions to the likes of Wisniewski. Two days later – two days – Torres made his trademark hit, leaving his feet, on the Wild’s Nate Prosser. Shanahan gave him two games for that one.
As usual, Torres’s latest hit was vicious and late. He clearly aimed for Hossa’s head, took a run at him and left his feet to make contact. None of the four officials on the ice saw the hit. That, too, is an alarming trend as noted by Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville: “The refereeing tonight was a disgrace.” Yes, the officiating this spring is particularly poor but that is a rant for another day.
Add it all up and Torres should be lucky if he ever puts on an NHL uniform again. Add it all up and Torres should be lucky if he ever puts on an NHL uniform again. There is no doubt Torres will be hit hard by Shanahan. It’s an easy call – international outrage and a repeat offender who is not a star.
But for the most part – witness the 48 hours it took him to issue suspensions for egregious hits by James Neal and Arron Asham of the Pittsburgh Penguins – Shanahan seems to be struggling with his responsibilities. A couple of teams, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, went public with their silly objections to suspensions for their players, which makes you wonder if Shanahan’s support within the NHL is eroding even faster than it did last fall.
No wonder Torres felt free to offer up a line familiar to the game’s proponents of violence while Hossa was in the hospital: “It was a hockey play. I was just trying to finish my hit out there.”