In a moment of shameless self-promotion, I sort of wrote about this over the summer. Listen, I am just as up in arms over Tom Wilson repeatedly trying to injure, paralyze and destroy the careers of his fellow NHLPA members, but we can’t squarely place this all on Wilson’s shoulders. He deserves every shred of scorn that comes his way from the opposing 30 fanbases.
The problem is much, much larger and it isn’t getting any better.
First and foremost, we have to look at the person making these decisions, the NHL’s Head of Player Safety, George Parros. Between 2005-2014, the Washington, Pa. native racked up 158 fighting majors in nine NHL seasons.
He also owns a clothing line, Violent Gentlemen, that sells hats like this.
On the surface, probably doesn’t seem like the worst idea to pick a guy who is Princeton-educated and spent nine seasons “policing” the game. However, the problem with giving a rogue sheriff a badge, is that he is still a rogue sheriff. People like Parros are from a different age of hockey. A day when it was believed that if you employed a big, nasty fighter, other teams would respect your stars and they would be able to skate freely from harm. While that might have flown in the 70s and 80s, it went by the wayside in the 90s up to today.
Milan Lucic was on the ice when Matt Cooke effectively ended Marc Savard’s career.
The Vegas Golden Knights employ Ryan Reaves, that didn’t stop Tom Wilson from head-hunting Jonathan Marchessault in last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
Andrew Shaw launched into Barrett Jackman back in 2015, and guess who was on the Blues? Yup. Ryan Reaves.
Time and again, we’ve learned the idea of a “deterrent” to keep the agitators and big-hitters honest, is largely bullshit.
The problem doesn’t begin and end with George Parros. There’s a culture problem within the NHL. During all of our Twitter outrage Friday night following Wilson’s hit on New Jersey’s Brett Seney, Eric Majeski a damn blogging legend, reminded me of this story from 2011.
“The current system punishes the offending player but does very little to deter such actions in the future. We need to review, upgrade and more clearly define our policies in this regard, so that they can provide a meaningful deterrence and effectively clean up the game.” – Mario Lemieux
Lemieux effective said the team, and not just the player, should be held accountable for a repeat offender’s actions.
The response, was well, as one would expect.
“On Mario Lemieux and the Matt Cooke ‘hypocrisy’” – Yahoo Sports, February 2011
“Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner is hypocrite for not speaking up after Matt Cooke suspension” – MassLive, February 2011
“Mario Lemieux is losing credibility” – Forbes Magazine, March 2011
There was absolutely a case to be made for Lemieux speaking out against this culture, but still employing Matt Cooke. Prior to Cooke’s March 2011 suspension after hitting then Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh that saw him suspended for the remaining ten regular season games and the first round of the playoffs, Lemieux was quiet about Cooke’s transgressions.
However, the McDonagh hit and subsequent suspension, caused a self-examination.
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey. We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.” – Former Penguins General Manager Ray Shero
We have seen no such comment from the Capitals, but I’m not here to throw stones at the organization that employs Wilson. The league has time and again been lenient on Wilson. After a 20-game ruling was arbitrated down to a 14-game suspension, it took 8 ⅓ games for Wilson to again throw a dirty hit. Even though we were treated to endless Washington Post fluff pieces about how he struggled with being suspended, took time to learn what hits are acceptable and how his return would make the Caps a “more complete team.”
When the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is run by a guy that made his living punching, the hockey operations VP is saying if a player had “real balls” he’d not worry about little things like brain damage, and an entire Canadian media apparatus that lauds players with little-to-no discernable skill over the elite players, what do the Capitals stand to gain by taking a hardline stance on what Wilson is doing?
The standard is set now. The NHL will try to hand down discipline they see as fitting, it will be arbitrated down and no lesson will be learned. When a guy can’t go more than a month without trying to injure an opponent, it’s clear the disciplinary system is broken beyond repair. Even Matt Cooke, after being benched for 10 games and a round of the playoffs, still found himself suspended later on in his career.
We will have the debate over hitting and fighting in hockey until the meteor hits the planet and wipes us all out, it won’t end, nor should it. You don’t progress without debating the history of your sport. Just like you don’t learn to how to grow without acknowledging your past.
Hockey will never not be a physical sport. It’s too fast and too unpredictable. There will always be a place for guys who play physical, it’s just a matter of now redefining what physicality is. It may not be the punching it was in the 70s, it may not be the Scott Stevens-esque hits of the 90s, but every era of hockey evolves and given what we know about head trauma and post-career healthcare, it has to be something different now.
Who knows what it will take to change this, it could a complete overhaul of the DoPS and hockey operations, it could be a former superstar finally speaking out or, god forbid, it could be a player dying on the ice.