Not any more

The NHL enters its Rorschach era | Posted Sports | National Post

In Canada on October 6, 2010 at 09:04

The NHL enters its Rorschach era

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The NHL formulated a coherent policy on headshots in light of Matt Cooke’s blindside hit on Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins in March.

  October 6, 2010 – 7:00 am

Last month, on Twitter, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Dan Ellis complained about being more stressed regarding money now — as a hockey player making US$3-million over the next two seasons — than he was in college. The populist backlash was fierce and often funny, with the online equivalent of pitchforks and torches; Ellis, after a brief fight, retreated from the public sphere.

Maybe Ellis’ honesty should be applauded; perhaps it only deserves contempt. But as the 2010-11 NHL season begins, it is much like Dan Ellis’ bank account — it all depends on how you look at it.

Part of the view, of course, has to do with where the game is coming from. Last summer, hockey took a baseball bat to itself — its legal battle with billionaire Jim Balsillie over the Phoenix Coyotes laid bare some terribly unpleasant truths about the league; the players’ association had cashiered union head Paul Kelly in Chicago in an early-morning hit that looked like gangland politics; former NHL golden boy William (Boots) Del Biaggio was sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud; and Versus, the league’s chief U.S. television carrier, was dropped from DirecTV, which accounted for nearly 19% of the channel’s limited reach.

Now, hockey seems to be easing into its Rorschach era. For instance, the NHL will enter this season with a coherent headshot policy in place for the first time — well, unless you count not having a headshot policy as policy — which is both the most progress in this area in the league’s rather barren history on the subject, and wholly insufficient.

“Our managers felt at this point in time we had to shift the responsibility from the player getting hit to the player delivering the hit and no longer could a player … deliver a hit to the head,” NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell said Tuesday.

The new rules, however, offer relatively narrow protection, outlawing only blindside hits to the head. And the revelation that both Philadelphia’s Ian Laperriere and Boston’s Marc Savard played in the post-season despite not being fully recovered from post-concussion syndrome — Savard is again sidelined, with a truly uncertain prognosis — is an issue the league has already put on the agenda for the November general managers’ meeting.

“Not sure what you can do about it,” Campbell said, “but it’s something we have to discuss.”

The work of the league’s lawyers has at least become more palatable. Instead of litigating in a Phoenix courtroom, the NHL recently struck deals with both the Kontinental Hockey League regarding respecting one another’s contracts — precluding another Alexander Radulov situation, where a daring Russian talent takes his puck and goes home — and with the on-ice officials, whose absence would have rendered the games as farcical as Shane O’Brien’s excuses for being late to practice.

That said, the Phoenix situations still festers, with no majority owner on record. (As commissioner Gary Bettman puts it, “The process continues.”) Sure, the league managed to prod the taxpayers of Glendale, Ariz., to foot at least US$25-million of any losses this season, but how you feel about that depends on whether you’re an NHL owner, or someone who disapproves of the sports-based blackmail of municipalities.

On the labour front, the NHLPA declined to execute another leader this summer, perhaps because they didn’t really have one. Instead, the union moved towards filling the void with former baseball labour titan Don Fehr, who is a Rorschach test in himself. Either Fehr is the guy who helped cancel the 1994 World Series, or the guy who co-presided over 16 years of subsequent labour peace. Either a lockout in 2012 is inevitable, or peace is assured. One way or another, we’ll find out.

This summer’s labour skirmish was over the Ilya Kovalchuk contract, which didn’t contravene the collective bargaining agreement as written, but as interpreted. The league won, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair for the New Jersey Devils to be hung from the battlements for signing the kind of contract that already offers teams from Chicago to Philadelphia to Vancouver a competitive advantage.

Even the future is divisive. In Quebec this weekend, 60,000 Nordiques lovers rallied in support of their long lost love, and a new arena. And while the public funding of sports arenas may not be the most polarizing issue in this country, it probably deserves to be on the list.

And that’s life in today’s NHL. Versus is back on DirecTV, but it remains insufficient. Kyle Wellwood decamped to Russia, which may be good for him but bad for hockey comedy. For every piece of unmitigated good news — such as HBO producing a Hard Knocks-style documentary series on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals leading up to this year’s Winter Classic — there is something unmitigatedly damnable, like Bettman’s Orwellian description of Campbell’s bewildering disciplinary operations: “I think when he gets done evaluating all of the factors that go into supplemental discipline, he is absolutely consistent.”

But hey, it was still a better summer than the last one. This year, instead of Patrick Kane being arrested for allegedly assaulting a Buffalo cabbie over a couple of dimes, the Blackhawks star was taking the Stanley Cup on a truly memorable ride through his hometown, with the only hiccup being that he was stranded about 70 feet in the air atop a fire ladder for about 20 minutes, with the Cup. The summer before, though, he might have dropped it.

Even at the top, it’s hard to agree on the way the NHL is going. After a stirring Stanley Cup run capped with an overtime winner, Chicago had to carve out its own guts over the summer to fit under the salary cap, sending away the depth that made the team so formidable, and also the starting goaltender that allowed them not to have to play Cristobal Huet.

Was it a shame that a potentially dynastic team had to be pulled apart in deference to the cap, or was it just? Is it good that more teams get a theoretical window to greatness, or a crime that the window might slam shut so soon?

“We’re not in favour of, or opposed to, dynasty teams,” Bettman says. “It was a natural consequence of both the system and the decisions that the Blackhawks made last season in pursuit of the Stanley Cup … And the benefit of the system we have is all teams can be competitive, can afford to be competitive. That to us is the most important thing, because obviously there are going to be differences as to how well run teams are, and how successful they are in putting their teams together.

“In the final analysis, under this system, everybody has a shot. Our fans, no matter what team they root for, know their team has a shot to make the playoffs and maybe win it all, which is perhaps why in the last five seasons all but two clubs have made the playoffs.”

So is this league ascending, or declining? Is it getting better, or getting worse? Is it good, or is it bad?

It’s the NHL. And it’s back.

• Bruce Arthur would appreciate it if you follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur

Posted in: NHL, Posted Sports  Tags: , , ,

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