Monday, April 29, 2002

Hockey's dirty little secret



By JIM LITKE, jlitke@ap.org
AP Sports Writer

        Vicious blindside hits do not cause concussions.

        Glass does.

        At least that's what a few hockey analysts were saying the other night. They were watching replays of Toronto's Gary Roberts driving Kenny Jonsson's head into the glass, cracking the New York defenseman's helmet and knocking him out. And the problem they spotted wasn't Roberts, or his blatant attempt to face-plant Jonsson, or the run-up Roberts took from the blue line to make sure he had a head of steam going.

        No.

        It was the seamless glass being used to enclose the NHL's newer rinks.

        It is, the analysts said, too hard, too unforgiving.

        Now you know why hockey, grand game that it is, seems doomed to remain a cult sport. Every time the discussion turns to the violence in the game, logic takes a beating. Enough of the players and some number of fans argue that some thuggery and fighting is necessary to keep more from breaking out. Even by that tortured thinking, the apologists had to admit last week was a bad one for the league.

        Besides Jonsson, the Islanders lost captain Michael Peca to a torn anterior cruciate ligament because of a low-bridge hit from Darcy Tucker at the end of a long shift, well after Peca had unloaded the puck. In the Boston-Montreal series, Kyle McLaren leveled the Canadiens' Richard Zednik with a carefully calibrated swing of the elbow, causing a broken nose, a severe concussion and a cut under the eye.

        You wonder what NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue would do if he walked into his office Monday after a round of playoff games and found reports detailing three separate instances of frontier justice on his desk.

        Here's what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his enforcers did: In the case of Roberts and Tucker, essentially nothing. Roberts was assessed a five-minute penalty at the time of the hit, and Tucker didn't get even that. In McLaren's case, a hearing by discipline chief Colin Campbell got him suspended for the remainder of the series.

        Compare that with what the victims got. Zednik, like McLaren, will miss the rest of the series while recovering from his injuries, an exchange that did not please Montreal general manager Andre Savard.

        “We lose the guy who is the first scorer in the league right now in the playoffs,” he said. “If it would be Mario Lemeiux, if it would be Joe Sakic, what would the league do?”

        The answer is probably not much else.

        Jonsson, who has a history of concussions underwent a CAT scan and has no idea when he'll be back. Peca will miss at least six months, and possibly more, which means he might not be back until the middle of next season. Game 7 is Tuesday night in Toronto.

        NHL disciplinarian Campbell defended the league's decision to hand Roberts and Tucker free passes, saying he had determined neither player intended to injure. Of course, last year Campbell watched replays of serial cheap-shot artist Tie Domi denting the skull of Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer and all it cost Domi was three playoff games and the first eight games of this season.

        By all accounts, Jonsson had done little to earn the target Roberts painted on his back and Peca's sin was refusing to fight, trying to avoid the very tradeoff Tucker kept proposing. Since his team wasn't going to get justice from the league, the least Islanders general manager Mike Milbury insisted on was an accurate description.

        “No, that's not playoff hockey. That's not hockey, at all,” he said. “That's thuggery.”

        It's also pro hockey's dirty little secret. It's supposed to be just a part of every game, instead of the point of playing. Old-fashioned enforcers like Marty McSorley made it easy for the hanging judge by admitting as much. The new breed of headhunter is more skilled, but less inclined to take off after somebody of the same rank. Where's the benefit, after all, in that kind of tradeoff?

        It doesn't matter who defends the tactic, or whether it's offered by an old warhorse like Toronto coach-general manager Pat Quinn, or more recent arrival Robbie Ftorek of the Bruins. The aggressor is called hard-hitting but clean, the kind of player who never intends to hurt another player.

        It's funny that we just finished an Olympic hockey tournament entirely free of the ugliness that has turned the playoffs from merely bruising to needlessly brutal. The threat of tougher penalties and national pride certainly helped keep things in line. But it didn't hurt that a few extra skate strides needed to negotiate the wider international rink made it tougher to line up opposing players and exposed too much ice in case of a miss.

        We won't see the wider rinks anytime soon, because of the revenue that would be sacrificed by the lost seats. But a league that believes new, harder glass is behind a rash of concussions should be willing to find out if 15 more feet of space on the side will calm down a lot of suddenly angry men.

        ———

        Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

       



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