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Column: NHL increasingly popular, out of control

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(Eds: Updates with Torres suspended indefinitely. With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's vision of a bigger footprint for hockey is finally coming into focus.

But it's not just the skyrocketing TV ratings for these playoffs in markets both traditional, like Philly, Boston and Chicago, and those traditionally slow to come around, like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix. It's the tire marks on the backs of the jerseys of some of the league's best players. The game has never been more popular, nor seemed so out of control.

The latest to get run over was the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa, who was taken off the ice in Chicago on a stretcher and briefly hospitalized after absorbing a blow to the head from a shoulder hit launched by Phoenix's Raffi Torres. Everybody in the building saw it - including, apparently, Bettman himself, who was in attendance - except the four officials whose job it is to police that kind of mayhem. And because they didn't see it, according to a league statement issued after the game, they didn't call a penalty, despite the fact that Torres left his skates to deliver the blow.

''First off, I hope he's all right,'' Torres, a serial offender as cheap shots go, said after the game. ''But as far as the hit goes, I felt like it was a hockey play. I was just trying to finish my hit out there, and, as I said, I hope he's all right.''

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was so mad he was sputtering.

''It was a brutal hit. You can have a multiple-choice question, it's `All of the above.' I saw exactly what happened, it was right in front of me, and all four guys missed it.

''The refereeing tonight,'' he added, ''was a disgrace.''

It was. But even the best officiating crews are helpless against the tide of fights, cross-checks and hits to the head overwhelming some otherwise very entertaining hockey. They aren't getting much help, either, from league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, whose decisions grow more bizarre with each incident. Shanahan began by letting Nashville's Shea Weber off with a $2,500 fine - roughly the cost of one shift - after the All-Star purposely smashed the head of Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg into the glass at the end of Game 1 of their series. Then he suspended Chicago's Andrew Shaw and New York's Carl Hagelin for three games each after both hit opponents without obvious intent during the run of play.

Cross-checking, hair-pulling, instigating fights - Shanahan has handed out punishments for all those violations, too, with differing results. As a former player of some stature, he took the job determined to bring some predictability to the punishment his office doles out and even explained his decisions with accompanying video evidence. But lately those explanations have been all over the map. Players no longer know whether the line is being drawn at intent or result - injuring another player - or even the star power of the violator who winds up in the dock. So everybody, from Sidney Crosby to repeat offenders like Torres are getting in on the action.

The NHL announced Wednesday that Torres was being suspended indefinitely, but even that did little to clear things up. The Coyotes forward was scheduled to meet with league officials the same day in New York, but was granted a delay until Friday. That means he'll miss Thursday's game against Chicago, when the extent of Hossa's injury will be better known, a factor that may - or may not - affect the severity of the penalty..

After winning 3-2 in overtime Tuesday night, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith was asked about the different sentences being handed out and whether he trusted the NHL front office to get each one right. In Game 2, the Blackhawks' Shaw ran over Smith, who has a history of concussions, behind his net and got the three-game sentence, even though the goalkeeper hasn't missed a minute of playing time. Even more maddening - as far as the Blackhawks were concerned - was that the length of Shaw's suspension wasn't announced until Tuesday afternoon, once it was determined Smith would play in Game 3. Had he been unable to go, presumably Shaw's suspension would have been even longer.

''I don't know if it's a trust factor. It's a tough job. Whether it's blatant, on purpose, or not. It's tough to get that read up there,'' Smith said. ''Obviously, the head hits have to be cut down. It's people's livelihoods, not hockey ... people have families and kids at home and wives, and when we're getting into head and concussion issues around the whole league, I think we need to put a stop to it.''

But the NHL's commitment to limit concussions is either full time, as it has been for the past few seasons and most of this one, or it's not. The league knows the difference, but it also knows that pandemonium on the ice is a lot easier for plenty of viewers to follow than a puck. Sold-out arenas and through-the-roof TV ratings across the board, including towns like Phoenix - whose Coyotes may well be playing in another city next season - are a testament to that.

In January, even as the league was touting the fact that fights-per-game had dropped to low levels not seen since the mid-70s, Toronto general manager Brian Burke groused out loud about having to send his enforcer, Colton Orr, down to the Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate.

Burke, who once held Shanahan's job, said his team was barely able to use Orr - he appeared in just five of Toronto's 39 games - because hardly anyone wanted to fight him. He predicted that abandoning the code that governed who fought and when would result in more players taking cheap shots and seeking revenge in even more dangerous ways.

''I wonder where we're going with it, that's the only lament I have on this,'' he said at the time. ''The fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over.''

Too late. They already have.

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

Tagged: Blackhawks, Devils, Maple Leafs, Coyotes, Brendan Shanahan, Raffi Torres, Mike Smith, Colton Orr

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