A conversation about the NHL's thrilling post-season
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) talk about the NHL postseason.
In the early 1980s, Canadian author and essayist Mordecai Richler penned a seminal piece for Inside Sports magazine entitled "What Hockey Needs is More Violence." The story was witty, imaginative, and biting, irony dripping from the conceit like blood from a goon's busted face.
If this year's NHL postseason is any indication, however, I think Richler's satirical arrows may have been misplaced.
Violence is up. Way up. As of Monday—roughly halfway through the first round of the playoffs— there have been 11 postseason fights. By comparison, the 2011 playoffs featured 12 brawls total. Fights per game during the regular season? Only 0.49, a five-year low. Fights per game during the playoffs? A reported 0.89. Almost double. And that's just fisticuffs. Rough, dirty, and downright nasty play also seems to be surging: There's Nashville's Shea Weber kicking off the chase for the Stanley Cup in earnest with an already infamous plexiglass face-slam of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg; Vancouver star Henrik Sedin being sent to the locker room after literally taking it on the chin; a New York Rangers-Ottawa Senators series that could double as an MMA pay-per-view; and an ultra-physical Pittsburgh Penguins-Phildelphia Flyers series that has seen skilled superstar Sidney Crosby—no, really—get into a tete-a-tete with fellow non-enforcer Claude Giroux. As Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said about the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia matchup, "It's going to be a bloodbath."
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And to think: That quote was uttered before the playoffs began.
Given the longtime hand-wringing over violence in hockey—and the current concern about concussions and brain trauma, amplified by Crosby's ongoing head injury issues and the high-profile deaths of three enforcers over the summer, including beloved Rangers player Derek Boogaard—one might assume that all of the pummeling would be bad for the game's health, leading fans to turn off and drop out. Au contrarie. Like the violence, playoff ratings are up. Way up. Game 3 between the Penguins and Flyers, for example, notched a 2.3 overnight rating -- up 77 percent from comparable coverage in 2011, and NBC's best ratings for a playoff game since 2006. Across the board, the network's early playoff ratings are up 22 percent.
This is no coincidence.
Hockey fans like violence. So do the people who play and run the sport. This is no great secret: just watch "Slap Shot." The NHL fined Weber a whopping $2,500 for bouncing Zetterberg's head like a basketball; Nashville coach Barry Trotz publicly praised the play; the team's promotions department reportedly put out a celebratory head-smash video and dubbed the practice "Webbering." So it goes. Gary Bettman and company have never seriously cracked down on fighting and brutality. The league might be dumb to put teams in places like Phoenix; it isn't stupid. The game is inherently violent—like football, only with sticks instead of tackling. Which is not to say that all hockey fans and players are bloodthirsty rubberneckers, gleefully waiting for the next human pileup. They're not. Hockey's primal, essentially appeal lies in the willingness of its participants to endure physical peril and punishment, to sacrifice and suffer in pursuit of victory.
The above dynamic creates a uniquely intense experience, infusing grown mean chasing a puck around the ice with visceral meaning. It's why the NHL arguably has the best postseason in sports, and why hockey really does need more violence.
Hampton, am I way off base about the place of violence in hockey? And do the NHL playoffs trump all others?
First, because we're all nerds, let me note the mild irony of Patrick using the expression "way off base"—an idiom derived from baseball—to ask a question about hockey.
Let me also note the wild irony of how the NHL should be celebrating, toasting their new ratings boom, but instead found the black fly of controversy in their chardonnay. This week the NHL's COO told the Globe and Mail that his office is getting complaints from angry sponsors—especially in Corporate America—who don't want their products associated with the extra-legal violence on ice.
In other words, thuggery is hurting the game.
The NHL's head cop Brendan Shanahan, pilloried for giving Weber that $2,500 wrist slap, clearly got the message. Like rain on your wedding day, he fell on Raffi Torres of Phoenix for a hit that sent Chicago's Marian Hossa to the ER. Torres, who didn't play in last night's (Thursday's) Western quarterfinal Game 4 against Chicago and likely won't be back for rest of the playoffs.
The crackdown quite inevitably prompted outcry from self-professed hockey purists noting, like Patrick, that thuggery actually seems to be giving the game a boost, thanks very much.
Frankly, though, the point-counterpoint over hockey's violent spring seems beside the point—like having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife. Casual fans, being casual, couldn't care less about the suspension of one player they don't know because he hit another they've never heard of. They just want to be entertained.
NHL ratings are booming, first off, because the games are everywhere. This season, and never before in the sport's history, every Stanley Cup playoff game will be nationally broadcast—either on NBC, the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), CNBC, or the NHL's own channel. Couple the truckload of new availability with the near-ubiquity of HDTV. You get a game that's much easier for casual fans to find, and much easier to follow when they find it.
Jake, how do you see it? Does thuggery hurt the game? Or is Patrick giving the league some good advice they just won't take?
At the end of a particularly gripping episode of Star Trek (the original series, of course) Kirk and Spock are talking about how the universe was saved because a man named Lazarus sacrificed himself. "The universe is safe, Jim," Spock says. "For you and me," Kirk responds with the gravitas that only a young Bill Shatner could pull off. "But what of Lazarus?"
In the NHL, Lazarus is Derek Boogaard. And Rick Rypien. And Wade Belak. Three enforcers, three men dead before the age of 36. No matter how many fans lustily cheer for more as the NHL playoffs devolves into testosterone-on-ice, you can bet there will be no cheering from Boogaard's family, or Rypien's, or Belak's.
The near-universal approval of the fight-filled first week of the NHL playoffs, from fans to coaches to Patrick himself, is honestly mind-boggling to me. I didn't grow up with hockey and I don't consider myself particularly violent, so maybe I'm just not the sport's target audience. But I watch hockey because the fact that a goal (a rare and valuable commodity akin to runs in baseball) can be scored at any moment is thrilling. I don't watch to see hair-pulling, or cross checks to the throat, or absurdly tone-deaf excuses by the increasing numbers of players who appear hell-bent on seriously injuring their peers.
"Anybody who has played the game might understand it," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said of Coyote forward Raffi Torres' hit on Chicago forward Marian Hossa, which sent Hossa to the ER. "But a lot of people who haven't been out there and haven't had a hit, they don't understand that you can't just in full motion stop - 'I can't hit that guy because I'm going too fast.'"
Here's video of the hit. What actually happened is that Torres left his feet to hit Hossa as hard as he possibly could in the jaw with his shoulder, more than a second after the puck had left the area. To say otherwise is obtuse at best and borderline criminal at worst because of the message it sends to young hockey players: Send a guy to the hospital, and your coach will still defend you.
It says volumes about the culture of hockey that fans and players are so defensive of the hits. Because in reality, they are no different than the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal that has outraged the country and the NFL. The only difference is that instead of a thousand bucks, illegal hits and brutal fights earn NHLers adulation from home crowds and fervent respect from teammates. And that's a semantic difference at best.