Timothy Dewhirst is an associate professor in the department of marketing and consumer studies, College of Business and Economics, at the University of Guelph
The National Hockey League must have been salivating over the playoff series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's still just the second round, but it's a marquee matchup, with the league's first- and second-ranked teams from the regular season pitted against each other.
Further fuelling this rivalry, the team's captains – Alexander Ovechkin for the Capitals and Sidney Crosby for the Penguins – were successive No. 1 overall draft selections who started their NHL careers simultaneously (a result of the 2004-2005 lockout). Not surprisingly, comparisons are frequently made between these two dynamic stars.
So, just when the NHL's best hockey should have been on display, there was a sudden and ugly turn of events early in Game 3 of the series Monday night. Going to the net with the puck, Crosby was initially thrown off balance by a slash from Ovechkin, then cross-checked in the head by Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen.
We have since learned that Crosby sustained a concussion.
And we have also learned that the NHL will not take disciplinary action on Niskanen.
Incredulously, the spectator is left to presume that justice was served by Niskanen being given a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for his actions. Never mind that Crosby – a far more influential player – had to leave the game and will miss Game 4 – at least – as he recovers from his injuries. The assessed five-minute major to Niskanen was also nullified, in part, when a separate penalty was called soon afterward against a Penguins player. Ovechkin went unpenalized.
Even Don Cherry, known for his Rock'em Sock'em Hockey highlight videos, has referred to the cross-check on Crosby as a "cheap shot" that warrants a suspension for the remainder of the series.
The NHL's inaction comes as the league faces a notable class-action lawsuit from former players concerning its handling of concussions and head injuries.
In a recent affidavit, dated April 26, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly shifted blame to the National Hockey League Players' Association and played down the league's ability to implement rules pertaining to fighting and hits to the head.
Curiously, however, when a high-profile opportunity has presented itself to the NHL, clearly involving one of its most visible star players, the league has chosen not to act, announcing that the incident did not warrant a review by its Department of Player Safety.
The implementation of a noteworthy suspension to Niskanen – as well as disciplining Ovechkin – would have allowed the NHL to communicate an apparent concern about concussions and head injuries – while placing the NHLPA in the unenviable position of representing the competing interests of multiple players.
The long-standing culture of the NHL holds that minimal penalties get assessed during the playoffs. A common refrain is to let the players decide the outcome, reflecting a general reluctance on the part of referees to call penalties when policing the game.
The NHL brand associations of speed, strength, toughness and intimidation are undeniable selling points of the game. The tradition of players not shaving during the playoffs also celebrates the masculine physicality that characterizes the game.
But the strength of the NHL brand is dampened when its star players are injured and unable to play.
The NHL might finally reconsider its role in player safety if Crosby were to retire now, still in his prime at 29, in response to the multiple concussions he has sustained while playing.
The likely fallout from Crosby's retirement would be considerable pressure from broadcasters, sponsors and other important stakeholders for the NHL to enact rule changes.
Nevertheless, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has offered reassurances by saying Crosby remains upbeat and in good spirits, prompting hopes that he may miss only a game or two.
In another second-round playoff series, Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle is complaining that Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers player who represents the NHL's next generation of superstardom, is getting "white-glove treatment" from the referees.
And so it goes.