A Semblance of Order
For two days, the NHL has demonstrated it actually can get things under control, and the players have demonstrated that despite all the excuses those trying to shill for the game will attempt to offer up for them - new rules, the speed of the game, the bloody history of the sport, the intensity of the battle, etc - they are completely capable of generally respecting each other and not turning games into a joke.
What a revelation. And, interestingly, fabulous hard-hitting hockey ensued in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday and Thursday, and not a single fan stormed out of a rink in protest of the absence of head shots or fist fights. Its possible people even watched the games on television in significant numbers.
Now, that won't make up for the embarrassing opening seven days when all manner of goonish behaviour obscured some of the superb play on the ice, made league sponsors nervous, caused both players and former players to speak up against the mayhem and left a few more stars either concussed or in hospital. Last spring's playoffs had concluded with riots in the streets of Vancouver, and this year's seemed to start with on-ice riots. No police cars were overturned, but common sense and sportsmanship were set ablaze.
Looking back, it was like rookie sheriff Brendan Shanahan wasn't prepared for the opening day of the post-season, and it took a storm of criticism for Shanahan to rouse himself from his stupor and start exerting a firm hand. Ditto for the referees, who went from passively observing scrums and all manner of illegal play to handing out 10-minute misconducts like candy canes at Christmas for players who dared to try to incite pointless trouble after the whistle.
What happens when you shut down the goons? The good players start to shine and give the league something it can actually sell.
Mikkel Boedker. Braden Holtby. The detemination of the St. Louis Blues and the tragedy of the San Jose Sharks. Martin Brodeur bouncing back from a bad night to blank the Florida Panthers. Kyle Turris scoring the first truly big goal of his NHL career. The struggles of Corey Crawford. The champs in trouble. The Kings and Canucks proving they're not dead yet. Alex Ovechkin benched for all but 1:58 in the third period as the Caps successfully hold a third period lead.
And on and on. See what happens when you put the gorillas in a cage and let the talent breathe?
That doesn't mean the rats, predators and thugs are done. They're always out dragging their knuckles on the ice, hoping to give the game a black mark in the name of "policing" the sport and "finishing their check." Lord knows we've also once again learned the idiots in the game have legions of enablers dedicated to always obstructing progress, telling you to watch figure skating or tennis if you don't like it, demonizing the best players in the game rather than the unskilled, blaming the media (even when they're part of the media) and generally trying to pretend what's happening isn't really happening.
Which is what makes the Raffi Torres suspension in New York today important.
Just as Shanahan had an opportunity to send a strong message at the start of the playoffs by punishing Shea Weber for his WWE move on Henrik Zetterberg's head and whiffed, now he gets another chance, a nice easy curve that isn't curving down the middle of the plate, a simple chance to produce he's in charge and that crime will not pay under his watch.
Then again, it already has, hasn't it? Torres eliminated Marian Hossa from Game 4 and the Coyotes, who don't need Torres, won the game to jump ahead 3-1 in the series.
At any rate, this is another moment for Shanahan, who hasn't done well on these types of significant decisions all year.
He blew it when Milan Lucic steamrolled Ryan Miller, made the wrong call on Rene Bourque after his head shot on Nicklas Backstrom, fumbled Duncan Keith's head shot on Daniel Sedin and botched the Weber decision.
Every time Shanahan has been faced with a decision that matters, he either dismisses the one-ice crime entirely citing some circumstance or excuse, or produces an insufficient punishment. He's a good man, a bright man, who has been given a job he was ill-prepared for and made a host of mistakes.
But that doesn't mean he can't start doing it right, starting today.
Now, he gets another try, an opportunity to show he can be fair but tough, deliver a suspension that most, if not all, can clearly understand and shows a larger sense of the good of the game, not just the good of the player who screwed up.
Get this one right, and who knows? We may just keep talking about hockey in ways that those of us who truly love the game can be proud.