Mario Lemieux is making headlines today for his comments about the NHL's handling of the disgraceful display of violence between his Penguins and the New York Islanders on the weekend. Lemieux says if the "travesty" he witnessed on Friday night is emblematic of what the league is about, he has doubts about his future as part of said league. (The hypocrisy of the man who employs Matt Cooke hasn't escaped the notice of most astute hockey fans.) Yet, why any of this should surprise or enrage Lemieux is a mystery. The NHL is a bush league.
Merriam Webster defines "bush league" as: "being of an inferior class or group of its kind : marked by a lack of sophistication or professionalism." The NHL conducts itself like a bush league, it's run by bush-league management and it makes bush-league, half-hearted attempts to clean up its public image. There are a lot of reasons for that perception. Here are ten:
10. Head shots. No other team sport, let alone a professional one, allows its athletes to be drilled in the head until they're forced to leave the game with concussions. In football, one of the most testosterone-driven, potentially-violent sports we pay to watch, the NFL began handing out heavy fines for helmet-to-helmet hits this year. It also announced a suspension policy for even first-time offenders who target an opponent's head. With the mounting evidence that shows concussions can have life-altering effects, the NHL continues to be soft on offenders, and wishy-washy on policy even after repeat incidents. When you consider that Chris Simon got 30 games for stomping on Jarko Ruutu's leg, it's shameful to see Matt Cooke get nothing for destroying Marc Savard's career with a blow to the head. A cut leg doesn't ruin a man's life, NHL, but scrambling his brain does.
9. Supression of personality. Most professional sports fans love their characters. From funny endzone dances in football to Ozzy Smith's backflips in baseball, there have always been guys who are true individuals. The NHL doesn't really like that. Jeremy Roenick was one of those types, and he's such a novelty he's been able to make a career out of speaking his mind. The usual NHL star is polite, unoffensive and humble. If a guy, especially a new guy, is different; if he's outspoken, entertaining or brash, he gets labelled, and not in a good way. Witness P.K.Subban. The kid is learning the pro game, but he's not about to show deference to opponents who want to beat him. So now everything he does or says is minutely examined by sports analysts and he's booed in every opposing arena. If the NHL weren't bush league, it would embrace a guy like Subban and use his exuberance to promote the league as fun and exciting.
8. Jobs for people who hurt people. That the NHL still allows fourth-line goons and cheap-shot artists like Cooke to have jobs at the same time it claims it wants to clean up the game is bush league. Can you imagine baseball keeping a reliever whose only job is to bean batters? Or the NBA employing players to come off the bench and foul someone? Goons are dying a natural death in the NHL with the retirements of guys like Georges Laraque and Andrew Peters, but they're being replaced by the much more dangerous cheap-shot guys.
7. Officiating. Any officiating in a sport as fast and volatile as pro hockey is, by its very reliance on human discretion, a flawed endeavor. However, it seems that since the league introduced the two-ref system, it's really inconsistent. In the days of the single referee, linesmen had a say in spotting infractions so if the ref missed something, the linesmen could tell him and he could assess a penalty. Players also knew the style of game a ref preferred to see, and played accordingly. Now linesmen have a much-reduced role and can no longer point out missed high sticks or cheap shots. And players can't adjust for refs' personal styles because the two guys on the ice might be vastly different in what they call and what they let go. So a hook one official calls every time might be let slide in a close game by the other guy. Couple human failure with the mass retirement of experienced referees and their replacement by greenhorns in the last couple of seasons, and the league's officiating leaves much to be desired.
6. Teams where they don't belong. Can you imagine the NFL allowing teams in Arizona or Colorado to fold, then relocating them to Manitoba or Quebec? Of course not, you'd say. There just isn't a large enough fan base to support teams in those areas. They're not football country. The NHL, though, did exactly the reverse. It allowed hockey-mad fans in Canada...who, incidentally, provide more than 30% of the league's total revenue in the remaining six NHL cities...to lose beloved franchises. They then had to stand by and watch the Jets go to Phoenix and Disney get a gimmick franchise in California. The league's insistence on supporting teams in places where most people don't care about hockey means franchises like the Panthers and Coyotes have low attendance and must take revenue from teams like the Canadiens that actually make money just to survive.
5. The Code. The NHL's culture of misguided masculinity makes the league look ridiculous. If a baseball team gets whalloped by a rival, nobody talks about who's going to be "sending a message"...Code language for "beating the hell out of someone on the other team"...next time they meet. No, in baseball or basketball they talk about getting even on the scoreboard. There are no moral victories based on beating up more of the other team's guys than they beat up yours. You also don't see guys who get hurt come back to play too early because it's the expected thing to do. Sidney Crosby's no weakling, but he should not have felt like he needed to come back to play on the day he took the hit that's now had him miss more than a month. Or Ian Laperriere, who nobody would mistake for a wimp, mightn't still be having trouble with indoor lighting ten months after coming back too early following a concussion, if not for the expectation that a bump on the head shouldn't keep a man from a playoff game.
4. The leafs. It's shameful that fans in one of the league's most powerful hockey markets have had nothing to cheer about since almost getting to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. I despise the idea of the leafs winning the Cup as much as the next Habs fan, but it's just wrong that they're not even a playoff threat for years at a time and management does nothing about the continued failure as long as fans keep buying tickets. The Dallas Cowboys are the richest franchise in the NFL, but that didn't stop them from firing their coach when it looked like they'd miss the playoffs last year. That, mind you, after they'd just won the NFC East the previous season. The New York Yankees are baseball's richest franchise, and they, unbound by cap restrictions, spare no expense in bringing in the best talent to challenge for a title every year. If the leafs, as hockey's richest franchise, are emblematic of the quality of the NHL, then it's a bush league.
3. Bettman. Hired by a crook owner and supportive of crook owners since taking over hockey, Gary Bettman has cancelled an entire year of NHL play to enforce a salary cap that has made very little difference when it comes to wise spending and better asset management for most teams. His personal battle with Jim Balsillie meant the league (read: other owners) have been obliged to support the dying Phoenix Coyotes while Bettman looks for a more "appropriate" owner. Meanwhile, fans in Winnipeg, who would gladly take on the team for more money than Bettman's been offered elsewhere and continue supporting it into the future, are ignored. He's done nothing to improve officiating, except implement fines if players or coaches complain about it. And in his desperation to land a big-time US television deal, he's willing to bow to whatever ridiculous requests the networks make of him, including scheduling important playoff games on a Sunday afternoon when the teams already played less than 24 hours earlier. Then there's the godawful fan promotions the league under Bettman endorses, like all-star voting and the Stan Lee super hero campaign. There's more, but you don't want to keep reading all day. Suffice it to say, the fact that Bettman is booed by discerning fans in every single NHL arena every time he speaks publicly, should be an indication of how great a job he's doing as NHL commissioner.
2. Fighting. No other professional sport allows it. Even within hockey itself, college, European and women's leagues don't condone it. The fact that the NHL refuses to ban fighting because it might keep some bloodthirsty fans out of the seats proves the league is more interested in catering to the lowest common denominator than it is in cleaning up the image of hockey as a sideshow. That such a ban might have the benefits of preventing more injuries and letting the skilled players perform without fear of the Bruins beating them up seems of no interest to NHL policy makers.
1. Colin Campbell. His continued presence as league disciplinarian is an absolute joke. Not only are his "punishments" unpredictable and inconsistent, they're generally much too lenient for a league that claims it wants to reduce injuries and spruce up its image. If he, as is rumoured, is limited in the length of suspensions he can hand out because the NHLPA wouldn't agree to changing the rules unless he kept suspensions small, then that's bush-league too. All of that aside, though, the massive conflict of interest that exists in having Campbell in a position of such authority, when his own son is a player in the league he monitors, would be unbelievable anywhere else other than in the NHL. The statement that Campbell will not make disciplinary decisions involving the Bruins is just silly. The person who is making those decisions in Campbell's stead is a hand-picked subordinate of his. That, combined with the emails Campbell was caught sending in regard to his real opinions on head injuries and in defence of his son versus league officials, makes the NHL the biggest bush league in pro sports.
The shootout. What other pro sport decides a team game with a completely arbitrary display akin to a home-run derby in baseball or dunk contest in basketball? None is the answer, because that would be bush league.
Todd Bertuzzi. That Bertuzzi is still in the league after destroying Steve Moore's life and career, and after only a 20 game suspension, is ridiculous. That he's a member of the otherwise classy Detroit Red Wings is a shame.