Saturday, 30 January 2016

John Scott, after wandering the desert, reaches the All-Star Game.

The NHL has a way of setting itself up for failure that's charmingly all its own.  In general, it dumbs down the sport of hockey, favouring plumbers and defensive play over its spectacular stars and fan-friendly wide-open end-to-end action.  It has as its Commissioner a lawyer who grew up a basketball/NBA fan and has no passion for the sport he should cultivate.  It operates in secrecy and opacity, and can be relied on to make baffling, inexplicable decisions on the short and long term.

All of this is exemplified by the John Scott saga.  Mr. Scott is what's euphemistically known as an 'enforcer' in the NHL, a 'policeman', a strong man who will by his mere presence, by the implicit threat of his size and strength, enjoin opponents to play by the rules, and not cross any lines.  While this should be accomplished by the referees who officiate games, and by the League office if anything extreme occurs, the NHL has evolved a role for a player or players to perform this disciplining of others.

There was a time when this might have made sense.  Before the games were all televised, with a dozen HD cameras trained on the ice surface, it was common for players to wait until the (lone) referee had his back turned to commit acts of violence on an opponent.  While the ref might miss the infraction, the victim's bench wouldn't, and his teammates would make sure to exact a price, and it wasn't a mere two or five minutes spent in a penalty box.

Nowadays though, with video available during and after the game of any and all transgressions alleviating any chance that something will be 'missed' by the two refs, and with inarguable evidence of the health risks associated with head trauma, it's transparently obvious that the 'price' is too great to bear.  To allow a player who commits a slash or crosscheck to be subjected to a pugilistic interlude by an enforcer is no longer tolerable, if it ever was.

So John Scott's role in the League is disappearing.  His breed are dying out.  They ply their trade in the AHL if at all, and even then incidents such as the KO of Brian McGrattan occasion more revulsion in the average fan than used to occur.

John Scott always stuck out like a sore thumb, and not just because of his great stature.  Seeing him play live, he looked completely out of place, a tanker among corvettes, routinely several strides behind the play.  His presence on the ice was a joke, more so than oddities are in other sports.

Kickers and punters play an accepted role on football teams.  The odd one-batter lefty reliever, or the corpulent designated hitter in baseball also raise some eyebrows and catcalls and chuckles, but again their contribution is central to the outcome of the game.  The NBA has had some freakishly tall players who do nothing but block shots and play defence, whose athleticism is questionable, but they affect the final tally on the scoreboard.

NHL enforcers operate on the periphery, in the margins of the game.  Their contribution is at best psychological, motivational.  Studies have shown that the accepted wisdom, that they can give one side a change in momentum, that they can turn a tide with a bout against another, similar enforcer, is at least very difficult to demonstrate, to quantify.  Because that's been what they've been relegated to: sideshow head-to-head tilts against the other team's enforcer.  The policing function has largely disappeared.

To be impolite, enforcers have become a joke, and with the fan voting campaign to put him in the All-Star Game in Nashville, the NHL was punked, with Mr. Scott as the butt of the joke.  Legions of hockey 'fans' ridiculed the league by voting in the worst hockey player they could find on a roster to its showcase event.

Because they could.  Because after the Rory Fitzpatrick 'Vote for Rory' campaign, and the Zemgus Girgensons campaign, the NHL still didn't understand that the voting process was deeply flawed, that more deserving players were being left aside for joke candidates.  Maybe the League reveled in it.  Until the fans doubled down, and showed that it's not always true that any publicity is good publicity.

Gary Bettman could have stepped in and as the Commissioner invoked his powers to protect the interests of the League, nullified these votes and made the clear statement that the All-Star Game was for the Crosbys and the Ovechkins, not a freakshow.  Instead, it tried to work in the shadows, by going against its usual practice and not publicizing fan vote tallies, by appealing to Mr. Scott to withdraw himself from consideration.  Something which once cost Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg one-game suspensions, deciding not to attend an All-Star Game.

But the NHL kept bumbling and stumbling, with the way it kept silent when John Scott was demoted to the AHL by the irked Coyotes, and then traded to the Canadiens and immediately assigned to their AHL team.  Until it, in the face of a social media firestorm, belatedly stepped forward and assured everyone that John Scott was in the All-Star Game all along, there was never any doubt, the fans had spoken.  Why had there been this furor, for days on end, it wondered?

So now we're being fed an all's well that ends well storyline, of John Scott as the underdog and the people's champion, never mind his take on the Players' Tribune.  While we didn't buy his good guy act, after years of seeing him be a bully on the ice, after the Phil Kessel incident, we've been mollified by the charm offensive from the player and the league.

Except we won't be watching.  The saboteurs who spotlighted John Scott have done their job, shown the league and its 'showcase' event to be a farce, and while it was worth a few yuks, it won't be worth hours of our time this weekend.

[Further reading from Bruce Arthur.]

1 comment:

  1. this is great. The first sentence alone... wonderful!