- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

It was late in the first period of the Islanders-Maple Leafs game Friday night. The Isles' Kenny Jonsson had just been splattered against the glass like a bug hitting a windshield, courtesy of the Leafs' Gary Roberts.
"You hate to see that," ESPN analyst Neil Smith said, inanely, as trainers tended to Jonsson's fourth career concussion. "The head controls every part of the body."
The head controls every part of the body. Thanks for the anatomy lesson, Neil. How are you at dissecting frogs?
Actually, the head doesn't control every part of every body. In the NHL, for instance, the head by which I mean the commissioner's office and the 29 owners don't do a very good job of controlling the violence in the game. The playoffs are supposed to be the highlight of the hockey season, an opportunity for the league to get some additional exposure, but all people are talking about these days are Roberts' hit on Jonsson and Kyle McLaren's hit on Richard Zednik and Darcy Tucker's hit on Michael Peca. Scandalous, each and every one of them.
All the more so because only McLaren has received any kind of suspension a maximum of three games, depending on how long the Bruins-Canadiens series lasts. Not a bad tradeoff for putting your opponents' hottest scorer out of commission. Zednik had four goals and four assists in the first four games, but after an all-too-close encounter with McLaren's forearm, the ex-Cap is out for the season with a concussion, broken nose and assorted other injuries.
The reason McLaren got off so lightly, league disciplinarian Colin Campbell explained, was that "the incident resulted from an instantaneous, but inappropriate, on-ice reaction by a defending player who was about to be beaten by an opposing puck carrier." In other words, he said, the action wasn't "premeditated."
But if premeditation is the prerequisite for a major offense, then how did Roberts escape with only a five-minute charging penalty for his mugging of Jonsson? As the replays clearly showed, he had plenty of time to reconsider before knocking the Islanders defenseman into next season. Rather than pull up, though, he accelerated to ramming speed and swept Jonsson headfirst into the boards. It wasn't quite as late as the shot Dale Hunter gave Pierre Turgeon once upon a time, but it was close.
As for Tucker's taking out of Peca, hip check or no it was a low blow, the kind the Philadelphia Eagles' Andre Waters used to dish out routinely. When in doubt, go for the knees. At any rate, in the space of about an hour, the Islanders lost two of their best players all because, in hockey, the head doesn't control every part of the body.
Only the NHL could be so casual, if not defiant, about such brutality. The Bruins accepted the McLaren's punishment real big of them, don't you think? but, typically, sided with Their Guy, saying his low-bridging of Zednik was "within the playing rules," in their opinion. It's within the playing rules, all right in kick-boxing.
And McLaren, typically, was hardly contrite. To him, it was just good, old-fashioned hockey. And besides, he said, his record has been fairly spotless up to now.
That's the NHL for you. Everybody's allowed one free maiming before he has to explain himself.
Here's what's really happening in hockey: The players are skating faster than ever, which is making the ice surface smaller than ever, which is leading to more collisions and more injurious hits than ever. The solution to this problem is fairly simple: increase the size of the rink, create more space, give the game room to breathe.
But the league doesn't want to hear this. It's a Canadians vs. Europeans thing. Canada thinks of itself as the centre of hockey, the keeper of the game, and it doesn't want to see the NHL "go international" (that is, become "sissified"). It's hard not to notice that two of the victims in these incidents victims for whom there is precious little sympathy are a Czech (Zednik) and a Swede (Jonsson). Coincidence? Maybe.
And so the hockey skates blindly on. Until the fans stop coming, the NHL is unlikely to do anything substantive about the situation. One observer suggests it will take a fatality to get the owners to wise up, but I'm not convinced even that will be enough.
In fact, I can practically hear them now. "It's a terrible tragedy," they'll say, "but people have died playing football, too."


LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide