Toronto GM Brian Burke misses the good old days. And just the other day, he got all misty about having to send his enforcer down the minors because, well, he couldn’t find a dance partner. Or something.
“If you want a game where guys can cheap-shot people and not face retribution, I’m not sure that’s a healthy evolution,” he said Thursday. “The speed of the game, I love how the game’s evolved in terms of how it’s played. But you’re seeing where there is no accountability.”
According to numbers provided by the NHL, fighting is down significantly this season. Through play Wednesday, there was an average of 0.8 fighting majors per game compared with 1.2 at the same point last year.
“To me, it’s a dangerous turn in our game,” Burke said.
Yep. All that fighting? It was to keep things safe. Like back in the NHL BC (Before Concussions). Jesse Spector of The Sporting News has no idea what Burke is talking about, and the AP story quoted above rather admirably cuts to the chase:
Burke’s comments come at a time when the sport has been forced to do some soul-searching. Tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak died in a short span over the summer and Boston University doctors found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological condition, in Boogaard’s brain, as they have with other former fighters.
Yep, back in the good old days Burke’s idea of noble thuggery kept the game safe. Like in 2004 when Vancouver forward (and Burke employee, we might note) Todd Bertuzzi maimed Steve Moore and ended his career in the middle of the ice. The Canucks were upset at a Moore hit on Markus Näslund from a previous game, a hit that the league ruled was legal. (It’s possible that the hit might, given recent rules changes, now be deemed illegal, but at the time the refs on the ice and the disciplinarians at home office thought it was clean.)
Before any of you Jurassic types try and suggest that hey, the Moore thing happened because fighting had been taken out of the equation, before you try and say that in the god old days an enforcer would have dealt with Moore mano a mano and all would have been peachy, you might want to review the record.
…on March 8, 2004, during another rematch between the Avalanche and Canucks, things went differently. In the first period, Moore fought Vancouver player Matt Cooke in a fairly even brawl, and served the 5-minute penalty for fighting.
That was the game where Bertuzzi tried to kill Moore. So no, the Code didn’t solve anything.
Burke, Bertuzzi, then-Canuck player Brad May, then-coach Marc Crawford and the Vancouver organization are all defendants in a suit brought by Moore that is, as best I can tell, still unresolved. With any luck, though, all defendants will wind up destitute and homeless.
Let’s be clear about something. Burke would have you believe that the Code of the North keeps everybody honest. There is no evidence, now or in the history of the game, that this is true, but dogma is immune to the corrosive influence of facts. What was going on with Steve Moore wasn’t about disincentivizing cheap shots. It was about intimidation and rank tribalism. You hit one of ours, clean or otherwise, and one of yours dies.
But hey, in the interest of examining the premise, let’s engage in some willing suspension of disbelief and pretend for a second that Burke is in fact concerned about preventing cheap shots. His theory is that the Hatfields and McCoys had it right all along and that the system was working fine. An alternate theory might suggest that you deal with cheap shots via an official disciplinary process that is guaranteed to work if followed strictly.
It goes like this: a guy takes a cheap shot, he gets penalized. If it’s a bad cheap shot he’s out of the game. Then you review the play after the game. First offender, no real harm, he gets a warning. Repeat offender, he sits three games. Then 10. Then 25. Then a season. Cheap shot that injures an opponent? The offender is suspended until the opponent can return to the ice, plus three games. Then 10. Etc.
Of course, nobody gets paid while they’re suspended. This approach is guaranteed to clean up the game and eliminate cheap shots, for one of two reasons. Either the thugs get the message and cut it out, or they’re not on the ice to do it again. Regardless, clean game, no need for enforcers. By the way, the league is reviewing every questionable encounter in every game, so even if the ref doesn’t see it when it happens, justice will still find you.
Burke pays a lot of lip service to “accountability.” I believe in accountability. But I think players ought to be accountable to the rules, to the officials, to the league, to the game, and not to an opposing goon’s primitive sense of mob justice.
I say all this as a former athlete who has, from time to time, been the enforcer. In soccer and basketball, two games I have played a lot of in my day, you get dirty players who will take shots that in some cases pose the risk of extensive injury. When it has happened to me or my teammates, there have been several occasions where later in the game I flat laid the offending thug out. Never start it, was my motto, but always finish it. Had I been a hockey player I’d have been in my share of fights. Since there’s no fighting in the sports I played, I had to cultivate other tactics for keeping opponents honest.
The thing is, I only did these things in cases where the officials refused to take action. Never once did I retaliate against an opponent who had been dealt with by legal means. Ever.
Which leads us back around to the people who run the NHL. People who tend to be clueless idiot fossils in the Burkian mode. Oh, I know, they’ve changed the rules on hits to the head in the last couple of years, but you have to be a premiere class doofus to think that’s a result of anything besides marketing concerns and a fear of litigation. How much money do you think Sidney Crosby’s extended absence due to a concussion cost the league? As we learn more about the effects of unchecked (if you’ll pardon the expression) mayhem on athletes and as we get more and more incriminating autopsy reports on guys like Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, how much money you think will be going out the door in settlements?
Right. I’d like for the league to do the right thing for the right reasons, but I’ll settle for them doing the right thing for the basest of reasons if it results in a more exciting product on the ice and healthier athletes off the ice.
Meanwhile, as long as Brian Burke is standing tall for The Code, are we all okay with sending somebody out there to give him the Steve Moore treatment?