Avery, Bettman on the wrong side for hockey
Most hockey fans welcomed the suspension of Sean Avery for six games.
But those who didn't saw it as an overreaction — and they can make a good case. Did NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman skip class the day they were discussing the First Amendment at law school?
What Avery said was stupid, tasteless and reprehensible. It was not, however, illegal. Freedom of speech is supposed to be guaranteed under law in both the United States and Canada. There are indeed limits to that freedom, but surely issuing an insult does not exceed those limits.
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With all that said, however, the suspension has to be viewed as suitable. While Avery broke no laws, he did overstep the bounds of acceptable behavior in the NHL.
There are those who say that the NHL has not yet caught up to the 21st century when it comes to matters of decorum and sensitivities. That's quite true. But is it such a bad thing?
One of the things that separates the NHL from the other team sports is that in the other sports, players regularly go to jail. In the NHL, the players stay in society and the owners go to jail.
In other sports, multimillionaire athletes often appear in public looking as if they are homeless. In the NHL, players are expected to wear jackets and ties.
In other sports, when the team is on the road, each player has his own hotel room. In many cases, he has a suite. In hockey, almost every player has a roommate. It's not a matter of cutting costs. If every player had his own room, the annual extra costs wouldn't even pay the contract of the lowest-paid player in the league. But it's part of the hockey culture. It's the way things are done.
For the most part, hockey players don't do drugs. You'd have to be awfully naïve to believe that it never happens — especially in the offseason. But drug offenses are extremely rare in the NHL — so rare that they're all but non-existent. And the league does do drug tests on every player twice a year.
Hockey players take great pride in never shirking their responsibilities to the sport. They'd rather crawl off the ice dragging a broken leg behind them than writhe around like an Italian soccer player with a hangnail. As the superb Orange County Register columnist Mark Whicker once wrote, "If Abraham Lincoln had been a hockey player, the day after the Ford's Theater incident, he'd have been listed as 'slight headache; will play.'"
NHL suspensions 2008-09
So when Avery made his senseless remark — the latest in a series — he broke no laws, but he absolutely shattered hockey's code.
This was his transgression and it was certainly deserving of the league's action.
But the question that remains unanswered is this: Why was Bettman involved? This was a matter concerning hockey's code of acceptable behavior, and where is there the slightest indication that Bettman has even the most cursory familiarity with that?
According to all reports, Bettman has been inside an active NHL dressing room once. And that was the room of the Winnipeg Jets, so you can figure out how long ago that was.
But the guy whose job it is to handle player discipline is Colin Campbell, a man who has been in many a dressing room — as a player, as an assistant coach and as a coach. Why couldn't Campbell have handled this? Why did Bettman feel that it was necessary to undermine Campbell's authority by stepping in?
We can all produce a list of criminal owners — not to mention cash-strapped owners who may put their own fiscal situation ahead of the good of hockey. The current economic crisis is going to affect the NHL, no matter what Bettman says. In these troubled times, Bettman might be wiser to devote his attention to those areas.
And when Bettman was asked on a Toronto radio station if the Dallas Stars could impose an additional suspension, he refused to answer. He said he didn't know the answer — that his associate lawyers would know, but he didn't. He also said, "What the Dallas Stars' options are ... is really something you should ask them about."
So if he doesn't know the full potential ramifications of Avery's actions, why is he making the decision? Believe this: Colin Campbell knows exactly what sanctions the Stars can impose.