Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Can the Culture of Hockey Change?


The 2010 hockey season is not yet a week old and already two incidents have occurred which have put a negative spotlight on the play on the ice. While each incident is different in nature, there is a common thread that ties the two events together.

One incident is all too painfully familiar to hockey fans. Jason Pominville of the Buffalo Sabres was brutally run into the boards from behind by Chicago's Niklas Hjalmarsson. Pominville would leave the game on a stretcher, suffering from a concussion and requiring 8 stitches to close a gash above his eye.

In the other incident, the New York Islanders James Wisniewski made an obscene gesture toward the New York Rangers resident pest Sean Avery. There was no doubt what the gesture meant and there was no doubt that it was obscene.

The result of both on ice incidents was a two game suspension for both Hjalmarrson and Wisniewski.

The thread that ties the two incidents together?

A lack of respect.

For the game and for the players by the players.

One could argue that what occurred in the the two games are totally unrelated. I think they are intrinsically related because in each incident a player failed to respect their opponent. In failing to respect their opponent, both Hjalmarrson and Wisniewski sullied the game we all love.

Yes, the results of the actions of Hjalmarsson and Wisniewski were decidedly different, but in my view, the root cause was the same.


Look at the commonality in each incident. In the case of the Hjalmarsson's hit, a defenseless player was viciously run from behind. Pominville did not have the puck, and the blind side hit had the potential to do serious damage. As it is, Pominville was lucky not to be injured more seriously, but is out indefinitely.

Hjalmarrson said the right things after the game. He was sorry, hated to see someone injured, just trying to be physical- the standard platitudes that we hear all too often after this type of hit.

Some have said that Pominville was at fault (?) because he didn't protect himself, because he was floating along the boards and skating backwards. The fact remains that Pominville did not have the puck and was in a vulnerable position.

After the game, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, Pominville's team mate, said, "...you have to change the culture some time, and I hope the League sets a precedent for the year."

Two games for injuring a player with a vicious hit is probably not the precedent that Miller had in mind.

In the Islanders/Rangers game, Sean Avery was being his usual irritating self. After a stoppage in play, Wisniewski and Avery were exchanging words when Wisniewski made the overt and obvious gesture toward Avery. Everyone that saw it knew exactly what the gesture meant.

I will admit that my first thought was that it was funny and that Avery surely deserved it.

Those thoughts were immediately replaced with how I would explain that to my 11 year old son if he was sitting at that game and saw what Wisniewski had done. The game was an afternoon matinee game on Columbus day, and I am certain that some children had to be in attendance. Even if they weren't at the game, the subsequent media coverage made it difficult to ignore.

I should perfectly clear at this point. I love the physical play of hockey. A great open ice hit- cleanly done- revs me up about as much as my team scoring a goal. I do not want to see the physical aspect of hockey relegated out of the game.

I also know that chirping and trash talk goes on all the time. That is part and parcel of competitive athletics. I don't expect that to go away either.

What has to happen to keep physical play from crossing the line and jeopardizing the health of the athletes we admire is a healthy dose of respect. What has to happen to keep the chirping from attempting to get under the skin of an opponent to becoming obscene is respect.

Respect for an opponent's health. Respect for the game.

And respect for the fans.

Respect does not mean that physical play is removed from the game. Respect does not mean forgoing an attempt to get a mental edge. Respect does not mean that a player puts it all on the line to win a game.

However, respect establishes the firm boundaries of physical play and behavior on the ice.

A lack of respect creates the gray areas in which players are unsure of themselves and what they should do on the ice. A lack of respect for players and for the game causes some to step over the line with their physical play and their behavior after the whistle.

Without the firm boundaries that respect establishes, anything goes on the ice.

So can the culture of hockey change? Can the game evolve where players do not run a vulnerable player on the boards? Can they be feisty without crossing the line into the obscene?


It starts at the top, though. If Wisniewski's obscene gesture is worthy of a two game suspension, how much more should Hjalmarsson's hit be suspension worthy? What the League has said is that they do not respect the players enough to appropriately punish a dangerous hit. In effect, a hit that could have permanently injured a player is no worse than a crude school yard gesture from one player toward another.

That has to change.

Players have to know that the League is consistent, fair, and intolerant of dangerous hits. Players need to know that there are no gray areas with these types of hits.

Players also have to respect the game and the fans that support them. It's fine that Wisniewski got suspended for his gesture. He disrespected the game and the fans of the game.

When the League send the message that disrespect of the game- and its fans- is no different than potentially injuring a player permanently, then respect for the players will continue to be inadequate.

And the culture of hockey will never change.

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