I’ve been noting the National Hockey League’s fundamental cluelessness regarding the state of its game for some time now. I suspect I’m not the only one who’s voted with his wallet, either – I’ve spent barely a fraction as much on hockey, as much as I love it, since the league’s impotent response to Todd Bertuzzi’s attempted murder of Steve Moore a few years back, and that isn’t likely to change until the front office gets serious about ridding the game of its gratuitous thuggery.
Now we have more evidence that they still don’t get it. Let’s pose the situation as a multiple choice question.
Q: Which is worse?
a) Taking a blind-side shot at the back of an opponent’s head in a way that inflicts a concussion, which more and more research suggests poses the threat of long-term neurological damage.
b) Making an obscene gesture – specifically, miming the act of fellatio – at an opponent.
Which is it? Violence resulting in potentially serious and lasting injury, or juvenile locker-room taunting? Hmmm.
The answer is … trick question. In the mind of the NHL’s alleged disciplinarian, Gary Bettman, the two are equivalent. In case A, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was assessed a two-game suspension for a dangerous head shot. In case B, Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski drew an identical two-game vacation for impersonating a 7th grader.
No system is ever going to be perfect, especially in a sport where the kinds of behavior to be discouraged include everything from “social” offenses like Wisniewski’s to dangerous, violent conduct like we see nearly every night. I used to officiate soccer, and it griped me to no end that the same penalty – a yellow card – applied to both dangerous play and unsportsmanlike conduct (and, in some cases, to procedural offenses such as kicking a ball away in order to deprive the other team of a scoring advantage). So I understand the realities facing officials, rulemakers and league personnel.
But I’m not asking for a perfect system – merely one that acknowledges that there’s a difference between being an asshole and a being a felon.
We don’t know for sure whether on-ice homicide would inspire greater outrage in Mr. Bettman than, say, mooning the crowd. But we don’t see any evidence that would tell us which way to bet, do we?