Sports

Will somebody please stomp Brian Burke until he shuts the fuck up?

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?

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16 replies »

  1. Either way, the numbers of players injured are higher. And don’t give me that not reported crap. If it wasn’t serious enough to report it wasn’t a serious injury. Total number of injuries may have gone up, but serious injuries have definitely gone up in the last while.

    • Total number of injuries REPORTED has gone up because the league, for the reasons outlined in the post, is now extremely sensitive to its liability. If you think that there didn’t used to be as many injuries, listen to the old warhorses brag about playing hurt and bitching about how the game the game today has gotten so soft.

      In 1960 a guy could have gone out there with a broken arm and if he could skate it wouldn’t have counted as an injury.

    • I will further offer this up. I would fully expect injuries to be up in any contact sport in this era. You’re talking about athletes who are considerably bigger, far stronger and significantly faster. It would be a miracle if there weren’t more injuries in sports like hockey and football. However, none of this is the sort of thing that’s amenable to correction by letting the goons go at it. Remember, Steve Moore waxed Naslund on a legal hit. You can damned near kill opponents with legal hits. What is a goon going to do then, other than simply add to the violence for no good reason?

  2. Concussions are being reported and checked for more because both hockey and football know they’ve got CTE lawsuits in their future. They’re trying to look caring and proactive so their attorneys have an argument.

    Raffi Torres is a great example of why fighting has no place in hockey anymore. His job is as a pest. Two weeks ago, he gets his clock cleaned by Boston’s enforcer, McQuaid. Does he change his tack? Nope, in fact his pride was wounded and he had to turn it up. In his next game, he gets fined $2500 for elbowing Jan Hejda in the head, and then the next game after that, he gets suspended 2 games for a dirty hit.

    Burke is just mad because he didn’t see the trend coming and now he’s stuck with a $2 million talentless ape on his roster.

  3. I doubt Burke didn’t see it coming. However, who is the $2 million ape? Orr makes $1 million a year and with his demotion to the Marlies does not count against the salary cap. So it makes no sense for him to be frustrated. It was just another signing that doesn’t matter.

  4. Hockey is, and will continue to be, a very violent game. I mean, people used to die out there back when players were smaller, weaker and slower. People used to cheap shot each other and they used to fight. So i’m not sure what the point is.

    I’m certainly not sure that all the new rules will change things, nor am i at all sure that even more rules will change things. Bringing the law in, as was the case in the Bertuzzi incident, is beyond silly to me … not because i think it was fine that what happened happened, but because it’s as over the top as the cheap shot was. It’s like we have to pretend that we care about the health of the gladiators to show how civilized we are.

    In any case, fines, suspensions and bans after the fact won’t change anything any more than jail time stops people from driving drunk, beating their wives or doing drugs.

    At most it will devolve the NHL into something as pitiful as the NFL with its porcelain quarterback rules, when the answer to most of the NHL’s violence issues is simply to scale the sheet to the size, speed and skill of modern players. The international rink would solve most of this and provide a better product.

  5. Sam – Please don’t use Burke as the spokesman for the game, or for The Code. Burke’s problem is the same as that of the record and movie industry. The market is changing and he, much like the industries mentioned, doesn’t want to have to change. Having guys who can, and are willing to, fight is still important in the NHL. However, that league has changed to a point where that guy has to be able to pass, shoot, skate, and score too. While the designated “goon” no longer has a place in the NHL; tough, skilled players always will.

    “Had I been a hockey player…” you would better understand the pulse of the game, and the place that the fight has in it. Injuries, like in every aspect of every contact sport, are a possibility. HOWEVER, more concussions occur due to non-fight impacts than in-fight impacts. I can shoulder check your head into the glass much harder than I can punch you in the face.

    I’m a long time player, and tremendous fan of the game of hockey. I know how fighting makes us look. I also understand how it fits. There are thugs that will always abuse things like The Code, but that’s true in every sport. The league has to deal with those players, and where the league wont, The Code will.

    • Matt: I appreciate the comment. Obviously, I disagree with most of it – there’s no fighting in other violent sports, there’s no fighting in college hockey, there’s no fighting in Euro po hockey, there’s no fighting in international hockey, etc. But it’s an informed and thoughtful response and we value that here.

      Mainly I’d like to hear an explanation of how the Moore case fits in. From where I sit, a guy’s career is over because an organization decided that the Code was more important than the law. Which is anarchy, which doesn’t work under any circumstances that I know of.

  6. I understand about ‘the code’ and I understand about pests and how tight games can become hotly contested. Tempers bubble over. Players perceive opponents taking too many liberties and you’ve got to stand up for your team. Referees call the rules, but unless you want a game with stoppages every couple of minutes, at some point the players have to be able to police themselves. I get all that.

    I still say fighting is gone from the game in 10 years.

    The findings that both Bob Probert and Derek Boogard had advanced cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy puts two more strikes against violent impacts in sports. Two other NHL enforcers took their lives in the last year or so. Would their brain scans have also shown evidence of CTE? It’s just speculation, but given all the other athletes whose brains have tested positive post-mortem, you’ve got to think the odds were there.

    Can absorbing a hard check also cause a concussion? Most definitely. And new NHL punishment czar, Brendan Shanahan has been tasked with meting out harsher penalties to address that very issue.

    The end of the 2010-2011 season also saw the removal of the last NHL arenas with seamless glass, a form of transparent glass stanchion that allowed for less obstructed views for fans in the first few rows (the big money seats). A side effect of that glass structure is that they are much more rigid. Concussions and other serious injuries have been common place. Players often describe hitting seamless glass as equivalent to running into brick walls. Make no mistake, the league is trying to appear ahead of the curve on this one.

    Publicly, Gary Bettman continues to tow the line that fighting is part of hockey’s heritage. He’s no idiot. He knows the physical aspect of the game is his meal ticket. But privately, he and the rest of the NHL brass are very well aware that CTE presents a growing legal exposure that the league can no longer ignore. Referees and team physicians are instructed to test players for concussions during the games now.

    The NFL is on the same page there. The league has recently added concussion specialists to every sideline after Colt McCoy’s concussion went undiagnosed during the Cleveland-Pittsburgh tilt last month. December wasn’t a good month for the NFL. Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis and a handful of other former NFLers filed suit against the NFL last month too, claiming the league has known for decades of the long term disability caused by repeated blows to the head. How long until the family of a dead hockey enforcer does the same?

    Brian Burke has egg on his face for committing $4 million over 4 years to Colton Orr, a one-dimensional fighter. Apologies for my previous 2-year $2 million figure. I just went back and checked. That’s a lot of money to tie up on an enforcer. Burke begrudging placed Orr on waivers last week, presumably with the intent of pitching him down to the Marlies, Toronto’s minor league affiliate. Whether he’s doing so because Colton Orr has a two-way contract that would pay him substantially less in the minors or not, the point is that Orr’s skill set no longer has a place in the game.

    Rather than take it on the chin from a notoriously tough Toronto press, Burke has come out ahead with a “woe is me, what’s become of our game?” sob story. It’s just theater and misdirection. He knows as well as anyone that heavy hitting is gone from the game. He just got caught standing during this round of musical chairs.

  7. Sam,

    The Moore case is an interesting one. It’s the one that gets brought up nearly every time hockey fighting gets discussed. It is especially referenced by people who keep the NHL on the fringe of their radar. I have a few stock responses I’ll leave here for you.

    1. Bertuzzi’s punch was a terrible, deplorable, cheap shot. It should never happen in the game. This was not a fight.

    2. Bertuzzi’s punch knocks Moore out standing up, but does not cause the spinal injury that ended Moore’s career. People will generally agree and say it was “Bertuzzi driving his head into the ice!”, but this didn’t happen either. If you watch the video carefully, you can see Moore’s knees buckle, and his feet slide into Bertuzzi’s. Bertuzzi trips on Moore, and falls on him. This is likely what did most of the damage, not the hit.

    3. After More and Bertuzzi hit the ice Colorado Avalanche center Andrei Nikolishin and his 213 pounds pile onto the two men. You can see Moore’s neck jerk when this happens.

    4. Prior to the incident Bertuzzi challenges Moore to respond for his actions, and Moore declines to. If we want to get into The Code, Moore violates it first, but not taking responsibility for his actions.

    All that said, this incident sucks in every direction. Moore’s failure to answer the bell does not excuse Bertuzzi’s cheap shot. But again, this was not a fight.

    Fikshun mentioned Bob Probert, who was a favorite of mine when he played for Detroit. Probert was one of the games most feared pugilists. He was also a big hitter, big drinker, and drug abuser. His family did a noble thing to donate his brain to research. I have to ask though, how much of the CTE found in Probert’s brain was from fighting, how much from substance abuse, and how much from general impact? We can’t tell.

    One of the most famous concussion losses for the NHL was Eric Lindros. Lindros was not known as a fighter. His concussions came from the fact that he loved to stare at the puck while he skated through the neutral zone. That’s a sure fire way to get plowed. Lindros’s career was ended by concussions, but not because of fighting.

    I’ll come back to your original question about how the Moore incident fits in: it doesn’t. It’s an anomaly. A series of bad decisions that ended in a terrible way. It should not be used as a measuring stick for fighting any more than it should be for helmet safety.

    You can, and likely do, still disagree with me. I can respect that. It doesn’t change what I believe about fighting and its place in the game.

    • 4. Prior to the incident Bertuzzi challenges Moore to respond for his actions, and Moore declines to. If we want to get into The Code, Moore violates it first, but not taking responsibility for his actions.

      What does the Code say about how many times you have to fight over something. He had already been challenged and fought it out earlier in that game. Are you standing by an interpretation of The Code that says you have to fight every time I want you to until I finally beat you to death to my satisfaction?

      You’re not really doing anything here that doesn’t strengthen my argument.

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