On Tuesday, Zdeno Chara introduced Evander Kane to the precepts of chaos theory, at least as the NHL understands them.
First, Chara nailed Kane with what appeared to be an elbow to the head.
Helmet askew and looking like a man who’d just been thrown out of a moving car, Kane staggered to his skates and went looking for a fight. The coaching term for that is ‘poor decision-making in the offensive zone.’
Throwing down with Chara is like choosing to fistfight a phone pole. If the pole punched back.
Kane got slapped around for a bit and took the instigator. Chara got a minor for elbowing. Everyone was left unhappy.
Kane was rather more so on Wednesday when the league announced Chara would not face further sanction.
Chara has more penalty minutes in his career than I have dollars in my chequing account. And though not a goon, he is a bit of a piano man – he enjoys tuning people up.
But by the NHL’s lights, harm by one of the usual suspects does not equal foul.
That wasn’t the case a few days earlier when Connor McDavid hit Nick Leddy. That was also a shot to the head, though as best one can tell, inadvertent. The only difference was that, unlike Kane, Leddy stayed down for a while.
McDavid was suspended for two games.
We are long past the point where there’s any sense in trying to understand how the NHL makes these decisions. One supposes that if you spend your entire day watching film slowed to frame-by-frame, you will eventually convince yourself that Oswald shot JFK.
But this was different. This was proof that the NHL really doesn’t understand what its core business is. It’s not fairness. It’s not even hockey. It’s entertainment.
You do not pull the circus into town and then tell the ticket-buying rubes, “Sorry, Dumbo was being a real jerk to the other elephants so we left him back at the railyard for a week. Hope you enjoy the clowns.”
Connor McDavid should be the NHL’s LeBron James or Lionel Messi. He should be globally recognized and revered. He should be shifting product by the pallet overseas. He is not and does not.
Part of that is McDavid’s fault, for being a human swatch of beige once out of skates. And part of it is the Edmonton Oilers’ fault, for being the Edmonton Oilers.
But neither of them can help that, and their primary concern is not promotion.
The league can and it is. It should be doing everything in its power to showcase McDavid. It should be doing that right up to and maybe just a little beyond bending the rules.
McDavid was in civvies for Monday’s game against the Predators in Tennessee. Imagine you are a relatively new hockey fan in Nashville. That would make you the NHL’s dream customer – someone who has no history in the game, but who has decided to get on board anyway. You are the living proof that expansion is a good idea.
The best player in the world is rolling through for a one-night-only engagement. Maybe you bought those special tickets at the beginning of the year. But, sorry, too bad, he was naughty. Maybe next season (because you are very definitely not going to be seeing him in the playoffs).
McDavid showed up for work Wednesday morning in Toronto.
As the media mob rushed toward his locker, Oiler teammate Kris Russell announced to no one in particular, “They want to speak to the bad boy of the NHL.”
The bad boy of the NHL was loitering disconsolately in the shower area, looking excruciated at the idea of coming out. When he did, the mob had given up and begun interviewing Milan Lucic, thereby blocking McDavid’s locker. McDavid shrugged his shoulders and looked around for help. There was none. So he shifted a few feet to his left and formed his own scrum.
He seemed more bored than angry. His most interesting quote, on the game to come: “It’s always a fun night. I like playing here.”
But McDavid doesn’t need to sell hockey in Toronto, or anywhere in this country. The trouble is just about everywhere else. And out there in the NHL’s Forbidden Zone, the kid who should be the NHL’s top salesman is becoming a cult hero instead of an actual one. As in, you’ve heard of him, but you’ve never actually seen him.
Edmonton coach Ken Hitchcock – a man who understands that when you work at the zoo, you need to occasionally feed the animals – provided the interesting bits.
McDavid is “pissed off” about the suspension, Hitchcock said. “He’s not a happy guy right now.”
Just when he was about to get somewhere with this ventriloquism act, Hitchcock inadvertently reminded you why this problem is a problem. This was on the topic of all the sneaky, unpenalized stick work McDavid receives versus the punishment for his single pseudo-crime.
“If it keeps going, he’s going to say something some day,” Hitchcock said. “And it’s hopefully going to get everybody’s attention.”
Say something when? A couple of years after he’s retired in a 30-for-30 documentary? And why should he have to “get everybody’s attention?” Isn’t the NHL highly motivated to do that drudge work for him?
Every other major league understands there are two sets of rules – ones for the stars, and ones for everyone else. Because people do not pay to see everyone else. That’s not fair, but it’s right.
It’d be delightful – dare one say it, possibly even interesting – if McDavid lost the plot in public. But no, no, that can’t be done. We have ways of doing things around here. And the biggest attention-getter in the NHL getting some attention is not one of them.
Best to plod on beholden to the league’s various levels of omerta – never complain about being dropped on your head into a dysfunctional franchise; never moan about being batted around like a pinata every night when you’re trying to do your act; and certainly do not point out that if people pay to watch you excite them, that’s hard to do when they give you a seat in the press box instead of on the bench.