The Wild West
The NHL lets head shots go unpenalized all the time.
As proven with Daniel Alfredsson's hit on Buffalo's Henrik Tallinder in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, the league also routinely condones punishing hits from behind.
So to think Gary Bettman's administration will suddenly get the urge to do the right thing and suspend Anaheim's Chris Pronger for his cheapshot on Tomas Holmstrom of the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 of the Western Conference final last night would be expecting Bettman's league to suddenly come to its senses.
Pronger's hit was to the head, it was from behind, it drew blood and it had fans in Anaheim baying for more blood given that the Ducks had got Holmstrom, probably the most troublesome Detroit player in the series so far.
(Ed note: The NHL will hold a hearing on the incident late Tuesday.)
Understand this. The NHL adores mayhem. It likes blood. It wants to see players like Holmstrom have their heads split open and bleeding, and to have those "highlights" shown on television throughout Canada and the U.S. It wants hockey to be seen as a sport in which Wes Craven would feel welcome. Bettman believes gore sells, and thus the NHL had to be thrilled when those who stayed to the very end of last night's blowout were "rewarded" when Ryan Getzlaf ended up skating around with blood all over his face courtesy of a high-stick from Kirk Maltby..
That is the image the NHL has proven over and over it not only embraces, but believes must be part of its product.
It wants to be seen as an outlaw league. And so it is.
The league that said Chris Neil's headhunting play on Chris Drury was good hockey and shrugged at Alfredsson's blatantly illegal and unpenalized hit on Saturday will thus likely shrug again when it comes to Pronger.
After all, Holmstrom deserved it, right? He'd played well, scored a goal and helped the Wings jump ahead 4-0.
In the philosophy espoused widely in the NHL and preached every Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada, a vicious, cowardly hit from behind was the correct response from Pronger and the Ducks.
Can't let those Wings get away with playing better hockey, after all. Unfortunately, the league's officials also got the call wrong on the spot, penalizing Rob Niedermayer instead of Pronger. Niedermayer arrived at the same time, but Pronger did the damage.
So nothing is the expected response from the NHL today. If they puff out their chests and get all morally correct, Pronger might, just maybe, get a game.
And then Brian Burke will go utterly ballistic, if he hasn't already. The defence will be that this is a "man's game," that Pronger can't be held responsible because he's 6-foot-6 playing against shorter men and that Holmstrom is to blame for having his helmet done up ineffectively. Moreover, he returned to the game in the third period, and in the NHL, quick recovery is always held against a player.
There's an echo here, of course, from Burke's days running the Vancouver Canucks when that team repeatedly shot itself in the foot in the post-season largely because of a lack of discipline and focus. There's no question Burke has built a strong, skilled and very tough team in Anaheim, but his challenge, and that of his coach Randy Carlyle, is to make sure these Ducks don't Canuck themselves.
The culmination of that Vancouver craziness was, of course, Todd Bertuzzi's unforgettable attack on Steve Moore, although that wasn't in a playoff game. It was somewhat ironic, then, to see a very different Bertuzzi playing for the calm, composed Red Wings last night against Burke's Ducks.
Back to the hit. Sure, the stakes are high, and Pronger would be a big loss. But the stakes were also high for Holmstrom last night, and he deserves the protection of the NHL.
He deserves better than that which Steve Nash got from the NBA, that's for sure. Robert Horry will undoubtedly be getting congratulations all around in the San Antonio locker room for not only laying out Nash with a cheap shot, but then enticing two Phoenix players - Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw - to leave the bench by a matter of feet.
So Horry, a support player, gets two games while Stoudamire and Diaw, both key Suns, get one each. Advantage Spurs.
Could David Stern have blown this one worse?
Then again, lets hold any condemnation of Stern until we see what Bettman's league has to say today.