The most vicious and, perhaps, disgraceful first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs continued on Tuesday night with Marian Hossa the victim of a late hit, an unpenalized charge and headcheck by Raffi Torres that had Hossa carted off and sent to hospital (video). There will almost certainly be a continuing outcry by those who detest what has become of this postseason, while the defenders of this type of hockey will parrot the words of leading spokesmen for violence in the game, most prominently Don Cherry.
Cherry was at it again on Monday, providing ammunition to his troops during Coach’s Corner in the first intermission of the Rangers-Senators telecast on CBC (video). It was vintage Cherry, filled with half-truths, distortions and deceptions, all calculated to counteract the rising anger among fans against what they have seen. His main points sort of even sound sensible — until you really think about them.
First, Cherry maintains that the only people who are against “the fights and the bangin’ around” are the “reporters who get in free.” The coaches like it, he says, the fans like it, the players like it. Well, his point of who likes it and how much can be argued, but as one of those in the media (and I am also a fan who remembers when Cherry was a career minor leaguer) who has written against the current climate in the playoffs, I think I can speak for myself as well as a number of others when I say the main points being objected to are not the fights per se, but the dangerous and illegal play — especially at a time when the NHL maintained to one and all that they were embarking on a new era of player safety, most significantly when it comes to hits in the head.
That is certainly what I wrote about and others did as well. Sure, fights have resulted from these incidents. But shoulders to the head is not fighting. Heads being held and smashed into the glass is not fighting. Cross checks to the head is not fighting. Jumping a non-combatant is not fighting. Sucker punches are not fighting. Launching yourself into a player along the boards or in open ice is not fighting. That’s what reporters are commenting on. Cherry is busy here blaming the messenger, but he’s not even hearing the message correctly — or he’s purposely altering it for his audience.
Cherry’s second point is “this has been going on forever” and he shows footage of the infamous Canadiens-Nordiques 1984 Good Friday brawl and the fight between Stan Jonathan and Pierre Bouchard from 1978 — two incidents. I’m certainly willing to admit that there have been lots playoff series that have had vicious episodes; I’ve witnessed them in person and on TV. In any given playoff year, we might have had a few of them, mainly when traditional rivals hooked up. But what’s going on now seems unprecedented. It’s in almost every series of the first round and this sort of over-the-top play worthy of suspension is happening every single night.
I recognize a good deal of what is now suspendable was not considered even illegal a few years ago, but regardless. The NHL has changed — or its supposed to have changed — and it’s incumbant upon the players, coaches, officials, league execs fans and the media to change with it. If Cherry is right — and I don’t think he is — only one of those segments wants the NHL to live up to what it has pledged to do.
Further, I don’t believe the frequency of what we are seeing, the sort of widespread disrespect among the players, has been going on forever and I know I’m not the only one who recalls it that way. The playoffs used to be about discipline, about not risking selfish penalties (when they are actually called) that would put your team at a disadvantage. No longer.
Cherry’s final point is that TV ratings are soaring and he wants you to believe that the mayhem in these games is the reason why. There is absolutely zero evidence that the all this dangerous play — or even the fights — are the single or even the main reason why NBC ratings have climbed 50 percent — and I write this with a bit of knowledge about the televised hockey business as a one time director of broadcasting for the NHL.
There are all sorts of reasons why the ratings are up. One is that NBC is doing a quality telecast, the best ever by a US broadcast or cable network. Another is that every single playoff game is being televised nationally for the first time in the U.S. Another is that all the games belong to one company and while it is on different channels of the NBC family, they are providing fans with a consistent product one game to the next and one night to the next. Another is that NBC are doing lots of promotion of their games — not just on the NHL telecasts, but on non-hockey and even non-sports programming on their various channels.
And there are other reasons fans are tuning in that probably are even more significant than the job NBC is doing. These are amazingly competitive series, with a large number of one-goal games, overtime games and with comebacks, potential upsets of series favorites and see-saw scores that keep fans riveted to the TV just as much, if not more, than the fights and the headshots. I’m not naive enough to think those things don’t add to the number of viewers — hey, people slow down to look at car crashes every day. But that’s not why they go out driving, to see car crashes.
I have no doubt Don Cherry will continue his holy crusade to keep hockey what it was when he was a coach. The fact that it was 30 years ago and things have changed enormously since then doesn’t matter. He’s a man stuck in the past and he’s not above oversimplifying or even falsifying things if it suits his purposes. He’s not about to speak against the kind of hockey that has made him a household name and a hugely wealthy man.