The Sunday Soapbox: The NHL Will Never Change Because We Don’t Want It To

On January 13, 1968, four minutes into a game against the Oakland Seals, the Minnesota North Stars’ Bill Masterton was carrying the puck into the Seals’ zone. Shortly after completing a pass to teammate Wayne Connelly, he was checked by Oakland’s Larry Cahan and Ron Harris. A helmet-less Masterton fell backwards, and smacked the back of his head on the ice. By the time trainers reached him, blood was gushing from his mouth and nose. Two days later, Bill Masterton was dead. To date, his is the only death in NHL history directly attributable to an on-ice incident.  Eleven years later, the NHL made helmets mandatory but even then, only for all new players.  Eleven.  Years.

Kind of puts all of today’s garment rending in perspective, doesn’t it?

First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room.  I’ve been watching hockey for 35 years or so, and on my totally subjective “HOLY SHIT!” scale of Scariest Things I’ve Ever Seen During A Hockey Game, Chara’s hit on Pacioretty ranks in a tie for fourth with Gary Suter’s near decapitation of Paul Kariya, ahead of Steve Downie’s chicken shit assault on Dean MacAmmond, but slightly behind Bertuzzi on Moore, Clint Malarchuk’s sliced jugular and Mark Howe’s impromptu goalpost colonoscopy (yes, that’s as bad as it sounds and count yourself lucky I couldn’t find it on the YouTubes).

After watching eleventy billion replays of the NHL’s Zapruder film in real time, slo-mo, super slo-mo, freeze framed and in reverse, I personally believe Zee totally meant to drive MaxPac into either a) the Bruins bench or b) the offending turnbuckle itself (as players have been doing since the day boards were invented).  A grudge needed to be settled and a message needed to be sent.  What I can’t believe, what I absolutely refuse to believe is that it was Chara’s intention that Pacioretty’s skull would be the initial point of contact once he got him there.  But it was, and the entire hockey world lost it’s collective shit due to a bad idea made infinitely worse by the law of unintended consequences.

What followed made me ashamed to be a sentient human being.  The pontificating media.  The laughable threat of a boycott from two Montreal based sponsors (where the fuck is your moral outrage over Matt Cooke’s continued employment, asshats?) and the Commissioner’s petulant response to same.  The utter absurdity of a police investigation sparked by complaints from outraged Hab fans who called in to “report a crime”.  And most despicable of all, the odious spectre of everyone’s favourite scum sucking bottom feeders using a potentially fatal on-ice incident to pull their Parliamentary snouts from the trough just long enough to bloviate against what their reptile brains tell them is not only another sign of the obvious implosion of Western Civilization as we know it, but also a useful pre-election photo-op.  I can’t help but think that the absence of pictures of an oh-so-concerned federal party leader at Max’s bedside isn’t for lack of trying.

But all of that is circus side show crap.  The only thing that will ever register…has ever registered with the Lords Of The Game are the number of asses in the seats and eyeballs glued to the television.  In other words, if we the fans want head shots and fighting and so-called “gratuitous” violence run out of the game, it’s entirely within our power to see it done.  All we have to do is to stop going to the games, stop buying the merch, and stop watching on television.  Simple, right?

But before you answer that question, ask yourself a few others.  Have you ever looked up from a good book, or your macrame, or a blog post because a fight has broken out in the game you’re not really watching but have on as background noise?  Has a devastating open ice hit that didn’t result in serious injury ever led you to leap to your feet with a primordial scream?  Has an obviously flagrant cheap shot on a member of your favourite team ever filled you with dark thoughts of bloody revenge?  Had it been some league minimum fourth line schmuck and not Sidney Crosby (accidentally) laid out by David Steckal and forced to sit out half the season, would you care?  Would your tender sensibilities and new found sense of moral outrage around all things “player safety” have put Scott Stevens in the Hall of Fame?

On Friday night, before puck drop in Tampa, I flipped over to SportsNet and caught the tail end of their very serious panel discussion on the Chara hit and headshots and Crosby and how terrible it was that the NHL continued to allow all of these horrible horrible things to keep happening and WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN??!!.  As they went to commercial following this VERY SERIOUS DISCUSSION, the station threw a “stay tuned for” tease to pimp the last segment to their newly cleansed and thoroughly upright audience.  That upcoming segment?  “Friday Night Fights”, in which SportNet scours every hockey league in North America and highlights the last seven days in pugilistic excellence.

Somehow, were he alive today, I don’t think Bill Masterton would be all that surprised.