Back in 2005, shortly after the lockout, Gary Bettman made the following promise:
“When we return, you will notice the difference,” Bettman said at news conference following the end of the year-long work stoppage. “The league promises that there will be zero tolerance for hooking, holding, tripping, slashing, cross-checking and interference. Players who use their stick or free hand to grab and slow down an opponent will be penalized. We promise to open up the game. We must pit an end to those tactics that take the speed and skill away from our great game.”
It was a refreshing statement, a statement that all hockey lovers wanted to hear. The game, slowed to a crawl by the mid-ice trap and the left-wing lock, needed to be put back to the way it was in the high-flying 1980s, when Gretzky and Messier and Goring and Bossy and Hawerchuk and Fleury skated and scored and lit up the night. That was the time before the game brought up a load of fast, skilled players who were being hooked, held and obstructed to the detriment of the spectacle.
It was going to be the dawn of the “New NHL.”
It was time to allow the referees to call the game the way the rulebook intended. There weren’t any changes to the basic rules of hockey. The league simply said it was going to send a directive to officials that would dictate a crackdown on all of the obstruction tactics that coaches were using, well, because they were allowed to use them. It was a great day for the game and for those fans who wanted speed, skill and excitement, not to mention some goal scoring, to return.
Heck, the commissioner and the owners even took the centre red line out of play; opening up the neutral zone and eliminating the old two-line pass offside. They gave smaller, faster players room to display their skills. This was going to be great. It even prompted a discussion about ending fighting in hockey.
It was a nice experiment and it almost worked. There was a lot of scoring for a couple of seasons and small, skilled players did have some room to dangle.
Trouble was, the officials went back to their old ways because despite the opinion of TSN and the Hockey News, the players never really did adapt to the new rules. There were too many penalties and nobody wanted that. After 2006-07, when seven players scored at least 100 points and 10 players scored 40 goals, the league reverted to everything that made the early 2000s deathly dull.
The game also became more dangerous. It took five full years to come up with 10 players who scored 100 points or more after the 2006-07 season, while in the meantime, concussions and suspensions grew concurrently. Scoring went down, serious head injuries went up and all the while, players got bigger and even faster and even tougher.
The league’s referees have changed the game, as well. All those hooking, holding and interference calls that were made in 2005-06 and to some extent in 2006-07, have long since been ignored. Referees don’t “call” games, they manage them and while most obstruction violations are now just part of the game, this year’s playoffs have already produced a jump in outright violence that hasn’t been seen in playoff hockey since the Slap Shot years of the 1970s.
In fact, on Tuesday, the following announcements were made:
1) “Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw has been suspended for three games for charging Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith during Game 2 of the teams’ Western Conference Quarterfinal playoff series Saturday night in Phoenix, the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety (I love that one: ‘the NHL’s Dept, of Player Safety’) announced.”
2) “The National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety has announced that Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals has been scheduled for a disciplinary hearing as a result of his cross-check to Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverley at the end of Monday’s game. Backstrom was assessed a match penalty on the play.”
3) “Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom will have a hearing with the Department of Player Safety on Tuesday afternoon for the match penalty he received after cross-checking Boston’s Rich Peverley in the waning seconds of the Bruins’ 4-3 Game 3 victory Monday night at Verizon Center.”
All of this is a result of some chippy, nasty, old-time hockey. Players don’t like each other and none of them have any respect for their opponents (the NHLPA really needs to look at more than just its members’ financial issues). These guys are big and strong and tough and they are proving that when the officials don’t make the calls, they’ll take the game into their own hands. They are also proving that if someone gets in their way, they are big enough, strong enough and hard-nosed enough to go right through him.It’s a fast, collision sport and when something is as important as the Stanley Cup is on the line, the players will do what needs to be done. If officiating that is dictated by the rulebook as it’s written is the order of the day, the players will see no need to take action. But when the officials start “letting it go,” like they did for so many years, the law of the jungle becomes the norm.
So much for all the people who are calling for an end to fighting in the NHL. Before there is an end to fighting, my old pal Colton Orr will be back in the league.
As writer and producer Paul Thomas Anderson expressed it so succinctly, “There will be blood.” And, at the rate they’re going, there definitely will be.
And based on the talk, the full buildings and the endless media coverage, everybody seems to love it.