LOVERRO: Sick and tired of watching hockey beat itself down to niche-sport status

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Four days after it happened, it is still sickening to watch the beatdown that Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery gave Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby Friday night in the midst of the Capitals 7-0 beatdown of the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

It makes me sick and angry now, just like it made me sick and angry the first time I saw it Friday night — sick to watch someone who wanted no part of a fight to be assaulted repeatedly by someone, and angry because this is a sport where such vicious acts of violence take place with the full sanction of the National Hockey League.

Angry because I wondered where Holtby’s teammates were while he was taking this beating. If this was something that took place on the streets, the police report — and there would be a police report — would describe how witnesses stood by and watched without helping the victim as he was pummeled.

Angry because I knew there would be little outrage about the attack. Capitals fans would be upset that Emery was allowed to simply pick a fight with Holtby, who made it known he didn’t want to fight, and would call for Emery to be punished beyond the two-minute instigation, the five-minute fighting major and the 10-minute misconduct for leaving his crease. He received these penalties from the officials on the ice who stood by and let this assault happen.

Why? Because that’s hockey. I knew that would be the big-picture reaction. And that makes me sick and angry.

So I reacted appropriately — emotionally and angrily. I went on Twitter and Facebook and said hockey will always be a fringe sport, a novelty act, as long as it allowed this kind of vicious fighting to be part of the game.

Hockey is not a fringe sport. It is not a novelty act. But it occupies the low rung of the major pro sports ladder in America. Fans complain that their sport doesn’t get the attention it deserves. My point was, one of the reasons it will never attract a bigger share of market attention is because incidents like the Emery beatdown of Holtby happen because fighting is a sanctioned part of the game — especially given the trend today of backlash against violence, even in violent sports.

I heard some of the typical reaction from hockey fans — fighting has been part of the hockey forever; what about boxing, and on and on, one defensive reaction after another, missing the point.

The whole point of boxing, if you are familiar with the sport, is to fight. And if you want to walk down the same street, fine. See where boxing and mixed martial arts exist on the landscape today — occupying niches.

But one response surprised me — it came from Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

“Thom, hockey isn’t a fringe sport or a novelty,” Leonsis wrote. “If you would like I will go on your important Redskins radio show and we can discuss…looking forward to seeing you at a game sometime, too.”

If Leonsis wants to come on “The Sports Fix” on ESPN 980 to declare that hockey is not a fringe sport or a novelty, fine, have at it. You would think he might be more outraged about the assault that took place on his player in Philadelphia Friday night — and it was assault. Emery should be charged with a crime, instead of given the third star of the game by the Philadelphia media, despite giving up four goals.

You would think he might have used his incredibly important network or blog to call for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to take action against this kind of violence — to finally take steps to change the culture of the game with drastic action.

But no. He wants to defend hockey — and, by the way, I was at the Capitals home opener, though I didn’t report to Leonsis to let him know.

This is what Leonsis wrote on his blog, “Ted’s Take,” about Friday night’s disgusting display: “I am sure we will be hearing more about the game and its aftermath. We play again tonight at home against the Florida Panthers. Go Caps — I am proud of the way we handled ourselves and the way we played last night.”

Sort of like the reaction Holtby’s teammates had Friday night in Philadelphia.

I wondered where his teammates were while Holtby was getting assaulted, and was told the referee waved them off when they attempted to go to his aid. I wrote on Facebook, “they must be really tough referees to stop those tough Capitals players from helping him” — my point being there was one priority and one priority alone, to protect your teammate there, even if someone armed with a whistle is trying to stop you.

Which elicited another response from Leonsis: “Thom — you are making a fool out of yourself? Why are you doing so? What is the motivation.”

How about disgust? Outrage? I guess I just don’t understand this beautiful game of hockey.

By the way, if we’re talking about making a fool out of yourself, here is Exhibit A, courtesy of Leonsis‘ really important basketball team, after the Wizards won three straight games in April 2011, on his blog: “A new big three has announced its arrival — (John) Wall, (Jordan) Crawford and (Andray) Blatche.”

I guess I don’t understand basketball, either.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and

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