Monday, 31 March 2014

Brooks Orpik's hit on Jonathan Toews isn't illegal or suspendable. But it should be.

I have to admit I'm confused by what is or isn't charging or boarding in the NHL, since what is in the rulebook isn't what directs on-ice officials in their decision-making based on what we see on the ice when we're watching games.  TV analysts also do a poor job of explaining rules and referring to the rulebook themselves, think about all the natter about 'distinct kicking motion', or in football 'the empty hand' when trying to decide if a quarterback fumbled or made an incomplete pass.  No one ever stops and says "Here is what the rule says, here are two clips that show a fumble, and an incompletion, you'll note that the quarterbarck's hand is 'empty' when..."

I'll just make the general point that if the Brooks Orpik hit on Jonathan Toews is not against the rules and isn't 'suspendable', then it darn well should be.  If there is a play or a rule that tilts the ice towards the less-talented player, and makes star players more vulnerable to injury, shouldn't you change that rule, or the way it's enforced, right quick?

The NFL passed the Brady rule a few seasons back, after Tom Brady's knee was blown out on the first series of the first game of the year.  A defensive player who had been blocked came in low at Tom Brady, and partly in a desperation do-anything-to-sack-the QB mindset, but with a healthy dose of make-the-quarterback-pay, make-sure-he's-not-too-comfortable-back-there, let-him-know-we're-coming philosophy, dived into his knee, rupturing his ACL and putting him out for the year.

The NFL reacted instantly, forbidding low tackles, or tackles around the knees when the quarterback is in the pocket, based on a simple fact: the NFL is better off with Tom Brady on the field playing, on your TV screens, than it is with him gone for a whole season, and returning with possibly diminished skills due to lengthy recovery periods.  It's obviously better for the league, for everyone involved, that the stars of the game, the Bradys and Mannings and Rodgers, be allowed to play and entertain and wow us.  And that includes the defensive players and the old-timers who whine that "you can't touch a quarterback anymore, why, back in the day, we would..."  Even those guys are making money, and will make more, if the NFL is successful and draws eyeballs and the ratings go up.  If Matt Cassel and Cade McNown and Luke McCown are on the field, the NFL is worse off than if those guys are holding clipboards and the #1's are on the field flinging the pigskin.

And the Brady rule is just one thing the NFL did to protect its stars.  You also can't hit a quarterback on the helmet, with any force at all.  You were just trying to bat down a pass, and your arm grazed Ben Roethlisberger's helmet as you whizzed by?  Tough noogies, you're not allowed to touch him there.  Hit the quarterback a half-second after he's passed the ball?  You kind of held up anyway, since you sensed you might get there late?  Not an excuse, that's a fifteen yard penalty, explain it to your coach.

There used to be situations that would make old-timers gleeful, like how on an interception, the offensive team now is playing defence, and is trying to tackle the ballcarrier, so the defence can now block the offence to improve the return yards.  Well, what that used to mean was 'open-season' on the quarterback, he was now a target for every defensive player to make a huge block on, and knock him into next week.  Defensive tackles and linebackers would converge on the quarterback, no matter where the return was headed, and try to put as big a lick on him as they could, to knock him out of the game.

Quite reasonably, and to protect its stars and its investment, the NFL legislated that you can't block the quarterback anymore, unless he's actively engaged in trying to make a tackle.  And of course, coaches are telling their QB's to walk over to the sideline when they make an interception, not to worry about tackling, save yourself for the next series.

Gary Bettman and his nincompoops in New York don't get that.  You would think that the Commissioner, who comes from a basketball background with the NBA, would understand the merit of trying to showcase your stars, of giving your league the best chance of being spectacular and successful.  Instead, he makes ice in L.A. and is looking to putting on games in Europe, but doesn't worry about the quality of the product.  He's the restaurant owner who only cares about sales and seatings, but not the quality of the food or the reviews and feedback.  If patrons come and don't enjoy the food, we'll take care of that by doing more marketing and getting other patrons, he thinks, not by making sure every meal is superb and grow the business organically, by word of mouth, through customer loyalty.  As if there's an infinite pool of patrons that are lining up to your restaurant that doesn't care about its food quality.

Whether that's stupidity or willful blindness, or something more pernicious is open to question.  I can't shake the memory of the horrible series of commercials the NHL used to re-launch the league after its suicidal lockout of 2004-05.  That the league chose to use actors and generic 'warriors', faceless nobodies to showcase itself is instructive.

The Lightning and Flames had played in the Stanley Cup final the last time it was awarded, with moderately exotic, immensely photogenic and likeable stars Vincent Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla as their respective captains.  The champion Lightning also had Brad Richards on its roster for the teeny-boppers to swoon over.

The league was full of bankable stars.  Towering defencemen Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger were certainly worthy of attention.  Classy, superb scorers Markus Naslund and Ilya Kovalchuk had been featured in a memorable Nike ad that displayed their personality and sense of humour.  Even voluble goofball Georges Laraque, larger than life, could have been harnessed to win over casual fans.

Instead, the NHL went with nameless actors, caricatures, to showcase itself.  It's bizarre, baffling, but only so if you don't take into account the meanness, the adversarial stance the league has taken toward its players.  The NBA embraces Michael Jordan, knowing full well what it's doing.  The NHL locks out its stars, eyes replacement players, believes that fans will watch whoever as long as they're garbed in the right branded jersey.

So when it comes to the play on the ice, the NHL runs commercials with words like 'battle' and 'warriors', and revels in bloodied faces as proof that the players care and the games mean something.  And it gets sucked into that motif, and circles closer and closer to the drain.  Instead of caring about the show, and ensuring that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are featured and at their best, they propound the meatgrinder aspect of its game as somehow noble, not self-defeating.

If the NHL had any sense, the hit on Jonathan Toews would be seen as a problem, and would rule it as such, either by drawing up new rules, or more simply by interpreting its current rules strictly.  It should very simply announce to the world, and directly to its teams, players, GM's, coaches, and fans, that the National Hockey League is a skill league, a talent league, and that the talent is cherished, valuable, and worth protecting.  Things that take away from talent, like hooking and slashing and boarding and kneeing, they'll all be punished harshly, and not judged based on severity, but objectively, absolutely.  There will be no kneeing, no slashing, no headhunting.

The Brooks Orpik hit on Jonathan Toews was against the NHL's own rules, in that he wasn't carrying or handling the puck at the time.  It was also high-sticking, in that Mr. Orpik lost control of his stick and swung it wildly in the air as he made contact.  The play-by-play guys can dissemble all they want, inured as they are by the routine thuggery and lawlessness in the NHL, it still doesn't change the fact that the NHL is refusing to enforce its own rulebook.

Curmudgeons will attack this view and state that they think the game is fine and don't want to watch hockey refereed any other way.  These same curmudgeons also attack the NFL when it takes steps to protect its stars, its quarterbacks, its defenseless players.  They prophesy that the game is being debased, is being 'pansified', will be killed with too much kindness.  Yet the League grows in leaps and bounds, by every measure, everyone involved getting richer.  While the NHL stagnates by comparison.

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