Carmine Marinelli/QMI Agency
The NHL absorbing a shot to their public image is not news. It's expected. Just open a history book and look at the rap sheet. The last twenty years have seen absurd player contracts, teams moving to non-hockey markets, the league taking over several clubs, and (worst of all) two lockouts. The NHL's status as the basement of the Big Four North American professional sports leagues is not in danger. And after Saturday's double shot of stupidity, it might be that way for a generation more.
Last night saw the opening minute between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks look more like the Royal Rumble than a hockey game. Flames head coach Bob Hartley, perhaps trying to spark his slumping team, rolled out his fourth line to start the game. Canucks manager John Tortorella (who's dealt the NHL a few black eyes) responded in kind. The referee did nothing and the inevitable happened. The ten man brawl kicked off a dicey game that saw a combined 204 penalty minutes.
Tortorella defended his actions, saying, "It's easy for people to say put the Sedins out there and it's deflated. I can't put our players at risk that way. With the lineup he had, I am not going to put those type of players at risk, and that's what ensues. I'm not proud of it. I have apologized to every one of the players involved in it. I don't feel great about it at all."
This is not the first time Tortorella has done this. It should be the last time. This is repeat offender stuff and a suspend is merited, but a fine will be levied. Just like the Shawn Thornton situation, the NHL will say one thing and their punishment will say another. It's a strategy designed to make the public forget about these things quickly. Sadly, it works.
The other disaster yesterday was a game changing blown call. The Los Angeles Kings had a 2-1 lead over the Detroit Red Wings with less than a minute left. Detroit blueliner Niklas Kronwall's shot ricocheted off Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and hit the netting above the ice. No whistle was blown and the puck fell onto Quick's back and rolled into the goal. Everyone saw the puck hit the meshing except the refs. The call was not reviewable. Why in the blue blazes was the call not reviewable? No reason has been given yet. The Kings lost in the shootout.
Kronwall recognizes his rabbit's foot, saying, "It shouldn't have counted, but at this stage of the game, where we are in the standings, we'll take it. I don't think anybody knew where the puck was. You look at the guys and everybody was waiting, 'where is it?' Then it bounced off the goalie's back and in. We ended up getting a lucky break there. I thought we battled hard and found a way."
Because of the aforementioned basement status, dark days like Saturday hurt the NHL more than any other league. Granted every association has it's problems, but they rebound from them with more ease than hockey does. The NFL has to deal with concussions, but that criticism is pure background noise. With positive year-round coverage who has time to discuss concussions? Baseball's steroid issues have ravaged it's Hall of Fame but the product on the field is still great. Was anyone talking steroids when the Boston Red Sox where healing a city? ESPN will bury a negative football/baseball/basketball story when a feel-good one comes about. The NHL is not given that courtesy. Heck, bad news is the only way hockey makes SportsCenter for more than three minutes.
If you're not watching the NHL Network, you will see no highlights concerning Martin St. Louis's four goal game tomorrow. Count on no one speaking of Columbus's six-game winning streak. NBC Sports might bring them up, but they'll shift to Brady verses Manning before you have time to change the station. The culture of hockey leads to events like the one in Vancouver while the ignorance of the league leads to rubs like the one the Kings got. Both are on you, Mr. Bettman.
Things need to change for the NHL to grow. But change is something Gary Bettman fights hard against. He battle like William Wallace to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix when cities like Seattle and Quebec where drafting proposals for them. Until Mr. Bettman can adapt, the NHL will continue to be a niche sport. That's not a term of endearment. That's another way of saying 'basement'.
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