Monday, February 14, 2011

Bush League

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 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" 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.

Honourable mention:

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.


MMD said...

Spot on. Except for the Leafs sucking, I enjoy that one. May it never end.

The league is sticking with fighting because of the misguided belief that their biggest weakness is a strength. The idea is that fights are what helps selling the sport in the US, but everyone with half a brain knows that, for most americans, hockey is a sport for toothless canadians who beat each other up. The league would rather lose 100% of sane people from fear of losing some of the bloodthirsty braindeads.

Of course, the entire old boy's club would revolt too if fighting wasn't tolerated anymore, but after a generation they would be gone. Now they're training the next one.

I hate this league so much.

Woodvid said...

Hmmm. Mario's rich. Wouldn't it be cool to see him start a new league? One that, say, allowed for more Canadian teams? No head-shots? Right to exercise priority on one regional draft pick every few years? Maybe fewer shifts so that players would have to play a strategy/skills game instead of a coached "system" energy game (which would reduce injuries and vicious hits, btw)? One which only allowed expansion to areas that have the market for it? A return to the one-ref system? A proper commissioner with no ties to any team (hello, baseball) or player (hello NHL). But that's just crazy talk, I guess.

Paul B. said...

How can anyone in his right mind not agree with everything mentioned in this blog ? Well, maybe except that part about the Leaves...

Anonymous said...

Best post ever. Keep up the good work, J.T..

Robert said...

>Todd Bertuzzi

I was saying this just yesterday as I watched the Wings-Bruins game. It's a disgrace that he is still allowed to play in any league, let alone the NHL.

dusty said...

Excellent article. I especially agree with 4, the leafs. The NHL suffers without a leaf-Hab rivalry. Hockey is Canada's game so we say, yet the two most valued franchises haven't been good at the same time since the sixties. Most of the fans reading your blog aren't old enough to have even witnessed a Montreal-Toronto rivalry first hand and that is shameful.

Also, Todd Bertuzzi. I am disgusted every time I see him on the ice. I thought I was the only one. Why Detroit employs him is beyond me. I can only hope he never gets his name on the Stanley Cup.

moeman said...

Great post J.T.

Like a few commentators I disagree about the leaf as they are a bush team run by a bush GM and the more they keep losing the better.

I'll add one more, which you allude too in your Top 10.

The Media, especially those that promote the violent aspect of the game. The Cherry/Milbury/Kypreos/Jones/etc. league of idiots that don't have the combined IQ or class of ex-players like Bossy, Lafontaine, Gretzky, Gainey and others. Smart, classy hockey people that gave us some of, if not the best hockey we've seen. tsn and sn are all gleeful when they announce their fight night highlights, whilst trying to squeeze an ounce of integrity on the headshot/violence issue. Just yesterday I saw and could barely read Mario Tremblay's 'article' about the Habs needing a strongman. Sports journalists are being derided for suggesting a pansified version of the game. Still too many neanderthals in and covering the game.

Anonymous said...

As an Avalanche fan, I would like to go ahead and remind you that, despite not having great recent years, Colorado does have the longest sellout streak in the NHL.

I'm sorry for the Canadians who have had to lose their team (and don't necessarily agree with that move), but please don't act like no one is interested down here.

J.T. said...

Lots of interesting comments. Thanks, everyone. I see I touched a nerve with the leaf point for some of you. :)

@anon(the Avs fan one): That's why I didn't specify Colorado. I know there are a lot of fans there who've been loyal since the Cup in '96 and some since the first incarnation of the Rockies. When I talk about non-hocky-loving locations with teams, I mean the Floridas and Phoenixes of the world.

Canuckles said...

First, Habsloyalist, awesome read. Really spot on on almost everything except one thing:

(aside - Bruins fan Robert?)
I don't condone what Bertuzzi did to Moore, but I don't see why he has to be singled out individually as a problem in the league, when he publicly apologized for his actions and cleaned up his game henceforth, while players like Matt Cooke are mentioned as mere examples of broader problems. Bertuzzi's actions were a result of the code. Steve Moore pulled a headshot on Naslund, giving him a concussion and knocking him out for several games Naslund was well known to be one of Bertuzzi's best friends. It was "the code" which led to Bertuzzi jumping Steve Moore and you can feel free to discuss it in that context.

But unless you are willing to name individual players and single them out like Ulf Samulssen, Matt Cooke and other similar players who have ended careers through dirty play, don't say Bertuzzi is an individual problem.

Canuckles said...

@Anon (avs fan): I agree, Denver was a good place to move the Nords to. While it was sad to lose a team like QC, Denver has been a good hockey market which kept up good teams for several years.

Also, I actually don't know about attendance to the California teams, but it seems that San Jose, LA and Anaheim are all doing ok. California seems to be a good market for almost any sports league as the people there seem to embrace spectatorship. While the Mighty Ducks were a gimmick initially, the franchise has grown into a respectable one and I am not sure it's fair to lump them in with the cities which just don't care.

There are plenty of other cities which have no business hosting NHL teams: Carolina, Columbus, Phoenix to name a few.

DB said...

Paul B might think I'm not in my right mind, but there are a few things in this blog that I disagree with.

The NFL crackdown on headshots is laudable, but how seriously they take concussions is still up for debate. Aaron Rodgers had 2 concussions this past season with the second one coming in week 14, yet he only missed one game after his second concussion. Favre was concussed, yet didn't miss a game because of it. At times he had so many injuries and kept playing that I expected him to claim "It's only a flesh wound" like the limbless Knight in the Holy Grail did.

Quebec and Winnipeg clearly love hockey, but whether these are economically viable markets for an NHL team is not clear. An NHL team needs about $85 M in revenue to breakeven. An 18,000 seat arena sold out for 46 pre-season and regular season games with an average ticket price of $50 (Ottawa's average)generates about $41 M in revenue. Raising prices to Edmonton's average of $60 per seat increases revenue to just under $50 M. That leaves $35 M to $44 M of revenue to be generated from luxury boxes, TV, radio, and merchandise in markets that are 30% smaller than Edmonton or Ottawa.

Moving a team from one economically unviable market like Phoenix, Atlanta or Florida to another uneconomically unviable market like Quebec or Winnipeg is simply trading one problem for another problem.

I believe the most popular sport in the world used penalty kicks (a shootout) to decide the 2006 World Cup between France and Italy, so the NHL is not the only pro sports league to use this method to break ties.

To me the simplest way to reduce the number of shootouts is to increase 4 on 4 overtime to 10 minutes, as NHL games average about a goal every 10 minutes.

My impression of Bettman is that he's a smug arrogant weasel, however, he is not responsible for every problem that the NHL has. Bettman executes the policy and strategy set by the Board of Governors (Jacobs, Snider, et al) and takes the heat for the unpopular policies.

Most of this blog is about what's wrong with the culture of the NHL. The cheapshots, the seeking of revenge and calling it justice, the view that it's a bigger crime to acknowledge a teammate's illegal hit than the illegal hit itself, the inconsistent discipline, and fighting to sent a message.

I agree that the NHL has problems and doesn't seem willing to do anything about it. I also find a lot of the suggested solutions wanting.

The call to ban fighting - what does that mean? A game misconduct for anyone who fights? If so what do you do about fights late in a game or in a blowout? What about if a star player defends himself after being jumped by a 4th liner?

So what is the solution? The NHL should implement a demerit point system similar to what Aussie Rules Football implemented.

Aussie Rules Football had a similar culture to the NHL where payback and intimidation were not only tolerated but tacitly encouraged. They cleaned up their league, with no drop in attendance or ratings, by assigning demerit points for numerous infractions. Escalating fines and suspensions automatically followed as players reached various points levels.

The NHL could assign no points for some non-violent penalties like delay of game, 1 point for a two minutes stick infraction, elbowing or roughing, 3 points for double minors, and 10 points for most majors.

Totals for teams could also be kept with escalating penalties (fines, salary cap reductions, forfeiting of draft choices) kicking in when teams hit certain point levels.

The beauty of this system is that it addresses the habitual cheapshot artist and the major offenders.

Anonymous said...

@J.T., my apologies, after rereading I realize you were using CO as an analogous example to move our football team away (please do, I'm a Raiders fan and maybe it would boost some Avs ticket sales!)

Hopefully Phoenix moves up north soon, it's about time.

Woodvid said...

I wanted to mention a few other things about your points (most of which I absolutely agree on, btw, except...).

8. Jobs for people who hurt people

Yes, Baseball doesn't employ people whose sole purpose is to hit or hurt others, but they do have their own set of rough traditions. For example if a rookie hitter shows up a pitcher with a Barry-Bonds-type home run trot, he risks getting a brushback pitch next time he's up. Not saying it's right, I'm just saying that hockey's not the only sport with payback steeped in years of testosterone-fueled tradition.

6. Teams where they don't belong:

I agree with DB about the Canadian hockey markets. Well, I'm not sure about Winnipeg, but I live in Montreal and I remember the departure of the Nordiques. They were sold by Marcel Aubut because attendance was low and they were losing money. They tried to stage a rally to save the team and hardly anyone showed up. Funny how no one remembers that now. The only people upset by their departure at the time were the die-hard Nords fans. The fact that, now, people expect to get government funding for a new arena boggles the mind -- especially when the Bell Centre was built with private funds. Quebec City was not able to support a team and probably couldn't now, either. I suspect it's mostly politicians and the media who want a team back there, to be honest.

4. The Leafs:

Yes, the Leafs situation is shameful, not on the league, but rather, on:
* Leafs ownership: For running them into the ground for so many years. I don't include Bryan Burke in this regard. He may not be everybody's cup of tea, but at least he wants to win, and is trying.
* Leaf Fans: Who puts up with this suckiness year after year anyway?

Actually, I know who: Red Sox, Cubs, and White Sox fans (for many years). Funny how when they do it, though, it just seems like admirable -- or charming -- loyalty. Doesn't mean baseball is a bush league.

2. Fighting

I'm in the middle on this one. I'm curious to see it removed, but that might result in even more stick-work. I think there are valid arguments that self-policing might work in a game as fast-paced as hockey, and the players would like it. I heard a rumour that the instigator penalty might be discussed this off-season again, btw.

Anyway, well-done as usual JT. Always love your stuff.

V said...

Well JT, another very strong article. Depressing from one perspective though... if I agree with your points, why do I even watch the NHL?

The answer is I don't. I watch the Canadiens. If they left the league, I wouldn't watch another game. I have not watched one inning of one baseball game since the Expos folded and I used to listen/watch every game on radio/tv every season.

I am a fan of the Canadiens in spite of the headshots, code, fighting, lack of professionalism, discplenary blackhole, Bettman, the horribly infantile television commentary and the NHL All Star Game. I have to turn away from that car wreck that is the NHL - just shut my eyes and ears and cheer for the Habs.

Although I don't want to come off as too pure. Sometimes the lure of mass destruction - of utter, unmitigated bush behaviour - is just too compelling to resist. Of course I speak of the Leafs - I love the fact they suck. If I had to choose between a 10 game Habs win streak and a 10 game Leafs losing streak, I would go for the Habs but it would be close. The Leafs are schadenfreude on steroids.

Anonymous said...

Canuckles: have you been to Carolina? - it's a hockey town. I'm an avid Habs fan, been there for a game Hurricanes vs Devils, place packed, fans in to it. The all star game proved they are in to hockey. Please don't lump them in with other southern towns. There are a lot of Canadians in Raleigh and area (which is why I was there visiting) which might lend to the popularity of hockey, but it is definitely a hockey town, and kudos to them.

Anonymous said...

I would like to draw a parallel between the drug war and the fighting in the NHL. Like the drug war, we take measures of telling our kids to just say "no" and the law arrests those who use it or buy it. Why not go to the root of the problem. Why not attack the supply?

It's the same with hockey. Where do the fighting hockey players come from? Is it safe to say Ontario? What's going on there that produces players with this mindset? What media celebrity endorses fighting in Ontario?

Like the drug war, we need to get to the root and figure out how we can stop breeding this ugly characteristic in the players.

@Anon(most recent one): and if we removed the Canadians from Raleigh, would it still be a hockey town?

Woodvid said...

Uh, last I checked, the drug war has been an utter failure.

Also, another honourable mention for bush league: "Parity," the playoff format, and 3-point games, where with 20+ games left a team like the leafs can be 5 points out of the playoffs but not really be all that close to making it; and the habs can be only 6 points *in* to the playoffs and be considered unlikely to miss. And do you know when the last time was the numbers 1 & 2 seeds met in the stanley cup final? 22 yrs ago -- Calgary-Montreal, 1989.