NHL

Violence fuels Gary Bettman's NHL

Marian Hossa (Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)
The Blackhawks' Marian Hossa lays on the ice after getting injured on a hit by the Coytes'...
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

Three days have passed now, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has had a chance to let fans, media and his PR guys let him know what his conscience is. He can come out from under his desk today, talk big and make sure his league cop, Brendan Shanahan, levels a huge suspension to Phoenix tough guy Raffi Torres for his outrageous cheapshot to the head of Chicago’s Marian Hossa.

NHL player suspensions

NOT SO FAST

Which NHL players have been suspended this season and in the playoffs?

Torres will be blamed for violating the spirit of the new NHL, the socially responsible NHL. Of course, what he really did was follow Bettman’s unspoken orders. The shot was exactly what Bettman preaches against, while also being exactly what Bettman desperately clings to to save his league.

So Torres should get, say, a 20-game suspension. Or 40. He’ll get hit hard, to some level. But let’s not scapegoat him. These cheapshots, this violence, is defining the NHL through the playoffs. The suspensions and fines are finally growing now, as the league’s PR nightmare grows. But mostly, the punishments have been weak, making the cheapshots worth it.

And while Shanahan is the one issuing the suspensions, limited some by the collective-bargaining agreement, this is on Bettman, who has directed his league to the point of risking concussions for ratings. Meanwhile, star players miss huge chunks of the season with head injuries.

“You’re asking me to prejudge something,’’ Bettman told the Chicago Tribune on the night of the hit. Bettman was at the game. “I’m certain it was observed by hockey operations and ... to the extent it requires review or action, they will do it. But let’s not jump the gun.’’

What a time for that direction, as public pressure has forced even the NFL to curb head shots.

Bettman is his own, personal push-me, pull-you, impossibly trying to walk opposite directions at the same time. If he can’t figure out which way to walk by himself, then he should walk out the door permanently before someone is seriously hurt, or even killed, on the ice.

“Things are getting out of control,’’ Blackhawks center Dave Bolland told reporters.

That’s exactly what’s happening. Bettman has lost control.

This isn’t the narrative of the sports world anymore. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to punish the New Orleans Saints heavily for their bounty system, as stories and studies keep emerging that show how much damage the sport really does to its players, and even how many hits to the head pee-wee football kids suffer.

So what is Bettman missing? Nothing, really. Because while the media harp on safety, mixed martial arts is flourishing because of our insatiable desire to see violence. Bettman seems to be going for that audience, that type of fan. They make up too much of his base.

He could not allow himself to be outraged by a cheapshot that happened right in front of him. At least, not until public sentiment became apparent. Now, it has.

Chicago played Phoenix on Thursday night in the first game since the big hit. Torres is out indefinitely until his meeting with the league’s enforcement people Friday. Hossa is out indefinitely until he stops drooling on himself and remembers what his name is. I just made that up, by the way.

The game went to overtime Thursday, with the Chicago crowd chanting “Ho-ssa, Ho-ssa, Ho-ssa.’’ The best revenge, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had said, would be to get a victory.

Instead, the Coyotes won 3-2 on a puck that slowly, accidentally trickled past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford. It was two overtime wins in a row for Phoenix. Hossa, the Hawks star, was out for most of the first game and all of the second, while Phoenix lost a third-line thug. Now, Phoenix leads three games to one.

In other words, crime pays.

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NHL PLAYOFFS

Stay up to date with all the NHL's latest at Playoff Central.

There was one fight in the game Thursday, early in the first period. Other than that, not much, while the fans were wanting, at the very least, to see the 'Hawks check hard. They didn’t, really.

Were the Coyotes expecting Chicago to get revenge?

“No,’’ said Phoenix captain Shane Doan, who was suspended earlier this year for throwing an elbow to the head. “Obviously, nobody wants to see anybody get hurt out there. But they were trying to win the game.’’

NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews missed long stretches of the season with concussions. And the promise in the NHL is that when the playoffs start, real hockey comes out. Not the cheap stuff. Nothing is like playoff hockey (other than Olympic hockey).

But on the first night of the playoffs, Wednesday of last week, Nashville star Shea Weber cheapshotted Detroit star Henrik Zettenberg as their game ended. Weber punched Zettenberg in the head and then grabbed him by the back of the helmet and smashed his head into the boards.

Weber’s punishment? He was fined $2,500.

That set the tone, and let the players know what was expected. The league now has produced nine suspensions and fines during the playoffs, which have gone on a little more than a week. A Philadelphia-Pittsburgh game came off as a brawl.

But Torres’ hit was the worst. Hossa didn’t even have the puck when Torres crossed in front of him, jumped and threw a hard-padded shoulder to Hossa’s head. Hossa dropped to the ice and didn’t move. He was later strapped to a board and carried off. Torres didn’t even receive a two-minute penalty at the time. He played the rest of the game.

You cannot legislate out toughness from hockey. Who would even want to?
But hard hits, for example, are supposed to be about getting players away from the puck. Hossa wasn’t even near the puck, making Torres’ shot without any purpose other than attack. And players are bigger and faster, and wearing harder pads than they used to, pads they can throw at a face with much greater collision and force than anything from old-time hockey.

Bettman can speak strongly, call for major half-season-long suspensions for cheapshots to the head. Something.

“I don’t think there was a malicious intent,’’ Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said, “like some of the cross-checks to the face, or (Duncan) Keith’s elbow a few weeks ago on (Daniel) Sedin.’’

Yes, Chicago’s Keith threw an amazing cheapshot. Also, Chicago’s Andrew Shaw missed Thursday’s game, while still sitting out his three-game suspension for hitting Phoenix goalie Mike Smith.

Tippett’s point is that Torres is no worse than others. Everybody’s doing it? Yes, that is the point, exactly.

Tagged: Blackhawks, Coyotes, Predators, Raffi Torres, Marian Hossa, Shea Weber

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