How to Fix the NHL

There’s no real beginning and end to any sports year, but I like to think that the Super Bowl is the New Year’s Eve of the sports year. The only difference is that everyone is hungover the Monday after the Super Bowl, but it’s not a holiday (though it should be) like New Year’s Day. And like New Year’s Day meaning the end of the holiday season and the long winter months ahead, the Super Bowl means the end of football and not quite the beginning of baseball with February and March still to go.

I didn’t care who won the Super Bowl. It was a lose-lose situation. If Ben Roethlisberger won for the third time there would be stories about how he “changed” and “turned” his life around over the course of a season. And if Aaron Rodgers won for the first time there would be stories calling him the next big thing and prematurely putting him in the same class as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

So, no good could really come from the outcome of Sunday’s game. I just wanted the Rocky Mountains to be blue, the pizza and wings to be good, the commercials to be funny and for David Letterman to not sell out and do any more spots with Jay Leno like he did last year. All of these things happened, so for me it was a good Super Bowl. And if the Giants couldn’t win it, I’m just glad that the Jets, Eagles, Patriots and Cowboys couldn’t either.

The Super Bowl without the Giants in it serves sort of the same purpose as Marathon Monday did for me in college in Boston. I wasn’t running the marathon and I wasn’t going to attend or watch the 11 a.m. Red Sox game, so it was just an excuse to party and still is. If the Giants were playing on Sunday, it would still have been an excuse to party, but I would have actually been emotionally attached and focused on the game and wouldn’t have watched it in the setting that I did. But the Giants’ season ended six Sundays before XLV when the eventual champion Packers finished a job the Eagles started.

As soon as the Super Bowl ended, the awkward time of the year began as it does every year after the Super Bowl. The time between the Super Bowl and spring training, which is really the time between the Super Bowl and Opening Day. Because aside from a few highlights like the first day of pitchers and catchers, the first spring training game, St. Patrick’s Day in Hoboken and the first four days of March Madness, February and March are as bad as the weather.

Luckily I’m a hockey fan and with the weeks leading up to the trade deadline and under 30 games left on the calendar, the NHL is getting primed for the stretch run. The Rangers have 26 games remaining to find out if they can score more than two goals in a game on a consistent basis and John Tortorella has that time to prove that he should be back for another season in New York. The next eight weeks should be a lot of fun.

With the Rangers having four days off, I spent Wednesday night watching the Bruins-Canadiens game, which had the feeling of the Bruins-Canadiens games of two and three years ago with the melees of Bruins-Canadiens games from decades ago. It was the best game of the year and the NHL probably feels like it won the lottery that it aired on Versus (though I watched it on the NESN feed).

It’s safe to say that sold-out crowd of 17,565 at Boston’s TD Garden will be going back for another game in the near future. 14 goals. 192 PIMs. 12 fighting majors. Seven misconducts. Two line brawls. One goalie fight. It was nearly a three-hour infomercial for the NHL and the best unintentional advertising the NHL has done since last February’s Olympics. If only the NHL could figure out a way to market their game better on purpose then games like Wednesday night could just be the cherry on top. Then maybe they could compete with the other three leagues.

But what made the Bruins-Canadiens gongshow on Wednesday so entertaining that my Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of people commenting on the game and why my phone was constantly vibrating was because it was everything the NHL is supposed to be. The only thing it really lacked was big saves, which is odd because of two of the six All-Star Game goalies were playing.

The one thing the game didn’t have was cheap shots. Lingering problems from January between the teams were taken care of the way they are supposed to be: by dropping the gloves. No one had to get run from behind or given a flying elbow outside the finishing-your-check window. No one ran anyone’s goalie (though I was hoping for this to incite another bench clear), and no one tried to dangerously take out a skill player from the other team.

Why is this all of this a big deal? Because earlier in the afternoon, the NHL’s posterboy for dangerous play, Matt Cooke, was given a four-game suspension for his vicious hit from behind on defenseman Fedor Tyutin, which was the latest dangerous play on a resume that could go toe-to-toe with Darcy Tucker’s from seven and eight years ago. Cooke has become a household name in the NHL for all the wrong reasons – another unintentional marketing campaign by the NHL.

For the most part, the league office has protected Cooke because of wordy and awkward rules that leave a lot of the game open to interpretation. But when your head of discipline is Colin Campbell, nothing should be left open to interpretation. Otherwise we get situations like last year when Cooke left the scene of his brutal hit on Marc Savard unscathed, while Savard has battled severe post-concussion syndrome and is now out for the remainder of the year after suffering another concussion. So instead of all-around physical games like the Bruins-Canadiens game on Wednesday, we have games in which Cooke and other players that don’t care about the livelihood or careers of others are free to do whatever they choose because they know the league might not have an answer for them.

There should be more games like the Bruins-Canadiens played and fewer games in which skill players can’t use their skills because players with lesser talent like Matt Cooke aren’t skating around with intent to injure on every shift. There are three main problems with the NHL and the way they currently police problems in the league that just need some slight modifying to make the game better and safer. And since the only thing Gary Bettman has to worry about right now is how he can book Hoobastank to perform at next year’s All-Star Game, I think he would be willing to listen for once.

1. The Instigator Rule

We could talk about all the ways that Gary Bettman has ruined the NHL, but I don’t think anyone is willing to sacrifice two years of their life talking about Bettman’s questionable leaderships and nonsensical decisions. But the one rule that Bettman has enforced worse than any other rule is the instigator rule.

The instigator rule was implemented to protect players that couldn’t protect themselves from being jumped. Instead it has done the opposite, by letting players that can’t protect themselves commit acts against they shouldn’t be.

If Player A wants to do something to Player B they can, and then if they don’t drop their gloves and fight, it’s OK. And then if Player B or a teammate of Player B wants to get back at Player A or a teammate of Player A later, they can’t because Player A is protected by the instigator rule. It’s disgusting.

There’s a reason why Wayne Gretzky played as long as he did and was able to put up the points he did aside from his natural talent. Because Gretzky and other scorers of his era didn’t have to worry about players like Matt Cooke taking runs at him since Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley wouldn’t stand for that.

Sidney Crosby hasn’t played in a game since January 5 because of a concussion and no one really knows when he will return. The game’s biggest star is sitting at home with the stretch run of the season getting underway because he was hit in the head, and there is still nothing being concretely done to prevent hits to the head with the NHL’s most important marketing tool of this generation out of commission.

Crosby’s teammate Cooke (who will probably end up getting Crosby killed eventually) tried to take out the game’s second biggest star, Alexander Ovechkin, with a leg trip that would make you throw up your most recent meal. What if Ovechkin had gotten hurt or been forced to miss a lengthy amount of time? Any league is only as good as its best players and the NHL would be without their best two because of scum skating around doing whatever they please because the rules built to protect the victims are actually protecting the dirty players.

The instigator rule isn’t going anywhere because the NHL doesn’t want to increase fighting, though they do at least recognize it’s a necessary part of the game. But if you don’t want to increase fighting, make it so that head shots are no longer a part of the game, by enforcing serious suspensions for those that think it should be a part of the game. Otherwise the only way Matt Cooke will learn his lesson will be once it’s too late and someone puts a Tim McCracken-like bounty on his head.

2. Suspensions

I’m not sure how the NHL decides the length of suspensions. You would think there would be some sort of rulebook for suspensions or some sort of procedure or at least some logic to determine if a player should be suspended and the severity of the suspension. But none of these things exist. For some time I thought that Colin Campbell used a cootie catcher to decide suspensions, and I still think he does because he has done nothing to dispel this idea.

Last week, Daniel Paille of the Bruins, whose dangerous play resume consists of drinking too many Cokes during games in which he is a healthy scratch for the Bruins (which is often) made an illegal (though this is questionable because Scott Stevens made a career off similar hits and is considered a legend for it), but not dirty hit. He was given a four-game suspension.

Matt Cooke’s dangerous past should be enough where he shouldn’t be able to make money playing hockey anymore, yet after being a repeat offender, he was given the same suspension as Paille despite CHARGING at Tyutin, LEAVING HIS FEET and drilling Tyutin FROM BEHIND with a few feet between Tyutin and the boards.

For anyone that has followed Campbell’s time as the league’s principal disciplinarian, it’s evident he has no idea how to fairly decide the difference between legal and illegal the way that I can’t figure out the difference between navy and purple and dark green and brown sometimes. Jack Edwards, Bruins TV play-by-play man, captured Campbell’s unique decision making with a piece two seasons ago.

3. The Officiating

Maybe it’s just me but I think the referees and linesmen do a terrible job of letting things play out on their own. (I’m pretty sure it’s not just me). Instead of letting players police themselves the way it used to be, the officials interfere too much with the flow of the games and don’t let situations take care of themselves.

Too many times the officials interrupt the pace of the game try to stop things before they happen like the pre-cogs in Minority Report. Sometimes you need to let the game play its course and let the players play the game the way it’s been played forever. No one paid the insane prices the NHL charges to go see the officials. They paid to see the players. Let them play.

The NHL has tried its best to make fighting as clean and socially acceptable as possible from the wordy fighting rules to the tie downs on jerseys, and even the way fights are officiated with the refs hovering around the fight so close that it looks they are nervous parents allowing their children to walk for the first. Watch a fight from before the game was toned down when refs would be nowhere in site and players had a chance to actually settle the score without being separated before it ever gets going.

Sure there were dirty players then. There will always be dirty players trying to get an edge by attempting to injure others. But no one had to worry about Matt Cooke trying to tear their ACL or paralyze them because the league’s rulebook had evolved so poorly.