You know how they say life's not fair, and sports is less fair than life? Well, sometimes that's really true. I was watching the hockey highlights this morning (way to go leafs...can't stop laughing, even though it'll probably bring bad karma down on me) and I saw the Anaheim fans fist-fighting over a stick Scott Neidermayer had thrown into the crowd, intended for a little girl. The incident reminded me that, yeah, sometimes sports really aren't fair. Here's my top ten most unfair things about the NHL (this week at least):
10. Souveniers in the crowd. The Neidermayer incident made me realize this one. Sure, the troglodytes were fighting over the stick that had been meant for a child in the first row, which was unfair to the kid. But it's also not fair that it had been intended for her in the first place. The kid is sitting in the first row! She's wearing a personalized RBK sweater. Chances are, that kid's parents are doing pretty well, and they can afford to buy a game-used Neidermayer stick if the kid really wants one. I'd have liked the kid whose parents can only afford nosebleed tickets to get a souvenier for once. But that kid is so far away from the players, there's no chance he'd bring home a casually-tossed stick or puck.
9. Refs who "meant" to blow the whistle. I've seen this happen twice this week and both times, the puck was in the net for at least a second before the whistle blew. It cost the Wings and last night, likely the leafs, points. And both times, the ref said he "meant" to blow the whistle. That's long been an acceptable reason to deny goals, but there has to be some sort of time limit here. The ref can't "mean" to blow the whistle for seconds at a time while the puck sits in the net. Especially these days, when the replay clearly shows a team is unfairly denied a goal. The league has to address this before some ref "means" to whistle down the Cup-winning goal.
8. Georges Laraque. At this point, nobody can convince me this man signed with the Canadiens last year with no knowledge that he's permanently injured. He was hurt with the Penguins the previous year, came to camp injured last year and again this season. Yet, he signed a three-year deal for exceptionally good money with the Habs, knowing very well he'd not be able to fulfill his part of the bargain. If Bob Gainey didn't have the opportunity or permission to have Laraque medically examined before signing, or if he took Laraque's word that he was in good shape, that's unfortunate. But at this point, I see Laraque as being in breach of contract in Montreal.
7. The leafs. For the first time in my life, I actually almost feel bad for leafs fans. I watched the Canes/leafs game last night, to get a handle on where the Habs actually rank among the worst teams in the league. Seems there are at least two worse than them, but only one of them had the face to raise ticket prices again this year. As a long-suffering Canadiens fan, I know the frustration that comes with losing, and the pure addiction that keeps me coming back for more. Shame on the leafs for taking advantage of their fans' loyalty and gouging them to see unfiltered crap on ice. I'm amazed they don't start throwing stuff.
6. Coaches' comments. Sometimes, the things coaches say are just not fair. Maybe it's meant to make players mad, so they rise up in protest at the injustice and play better. But, I think, more times it's that the coaches are thoughtless in their comments. I watched Ron Wilson last night, talking about how "some people who are busy feeling sorry for themselves" have to be better. That was unfair, because Wilson has to be better. He put a previously-benched Luke Schenn out there on an important PK, then benched him again when the 'Canes tied it up. That was stupid coaching, and it's not fair for him to call the players out without taking any blame himself. Another example: Jacques Martin saying Carey Price needed to improve his work ethic. That was unfair, when everyone, including Martin, had been mentioning earlier this season how Price was working his tail off in practice. To say someone needs to improve work ethic is to say he's lazy and unmotivated. Whatever else Price is, he's not that, and it was unfair of Martin to say he is.
5. No replay on injuries. This has long been an issue for me, but it came up again last night when I saw Kostopoulos get sticked by his own teammate to open a cut on his face. The leafs' Ian White got a four-minute minor for it, when a simple replay would have shown he wasn't at fault. I go back to Saku Koivu nearly losing an eye with no penalty call, and Andrei Kostitsyn nearly getting decapitated by Kurt Sauer last season, again with no call. When a player is bleeding or unconscious, the ref needs to be able to look at a replay to see what happened. There's obviously been a foul in those situations, and if the refs miss it, it should be reviewed. Otherwise the offending player is getting away with an infraction, and that's not fair.
4. Bad timing. I read earlier this week about an undrafted junior player, Ted Stephens of the Moncton Wildcats. He was invited to the Habs rookie camp, but because the team didn't file the paperwork with the NHL on time, he missed that opportunity. Now, I'm not saying Ted Stephens would have rocked the rookie camp and signed a contract with the Canadiens, but it's not fair that something as silly as a secretary's mistake might have cost him his only chance to ever try out for an NHL team. Even more unfair? I bet that sort of thing happens all the time, and those little things can make the difference to someone getting a chance or not.
3. Height restrictions. I'm already on the record as a supporter of David Desharnais. The unfair thing with him is that he hasn't already gotten a chance at the NHL because of his diminutive size. It's not fair that a small player has to be ten times better than everyone else to get a shot, even if he's got tons of talent, but at the same time there are dozens and dozens of ham-handed scrubs like Greg Stewart who get to play in the NHL because they have "big" on their side. Coaches and GMs make the argument that smaller players will get pushed around and won't be able to handle the physical stress of playing against huge, punishing NHL defencemen. The problem is, those players don't get a chance to prove the coaches wrong because nobody will trust a short guy.
2. Shootout points. It's time to end this nonsense practice of making some games worth three points in the standings. There are no ties anymore, so there's no longer a need for points at all. The NHL needs to go with wins and losses, like football, baseball and basketball do. The loser point skews the standings and puts some teams ahead of others because they manage to lose more often in extra time. That's ridiculous. Keep the shootout, if you must, NHL, but drop the pointless points.
And the number one unfair thing about hockey:
1. Tanking for glory. Watching the Blackhawks/Flames game last night, you could see the difference tanking makes. The Flames have been a steady, if not spectacular, team in the last several years, consistently choosing in the bottom third of the draft since lucking out in the post-lockout lottery and picking Phaneuf at number nine. Before 2004, however, they had a wretched 9-year streak of missing the playoffs...just not bad enough to land themselves a top-five draft pick. By not tanking, the Flames missed out on such spectacular difference-makers as Rick Nash, Ilya Kovulchuk, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester, Dany Heatley, Marion Gaborik, the Sedin brothers, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Roberto Luongo. Imagine if they'd been just a little bit worse? What a team they'd have! The 'Hawks, on the other hand, were that bad. With three top-three picks in four seasons, they landed Toews, Kane and Cam Barker. Not a bad result for three or four rotten seasons. Watching them destroy Calgary last night made me realize how unfair it is that teams with bad management get the option of redeeming everything by being terrible for a few years, while teams whose managers try to improve and remain respectable, are doomed to wallow in mediocrity because they can't draft top players. There's a whiff of the unfair around Pittsburgh's stacked team of superstars and the Capitals, as well as the Blackhawks. I think the NHL should change the rules so every draft position in the first round is determined by lottery, which gives every team a fair chance at the star players. Failing that, the league should allow a team no more than two top-five picks in consecutive years, and only one number-one pick in five years. Why should Tampa be allowed to build another Cup winner on the backs of Stamkos, Hedman and whoever they'll pick this year, just because their owners and managers are the most incompetent in the league? Rewarding people for sucking at their jobs is the most unfair thing in hockey.