The Brutality Of Hockey and The Acceptance Of Fighting

Since purchasing the NHL Center Ice package from my cable overlords, I’ve had the pleasure of watching as many Maple Leafs games as I can handle.  There’s never enough trust me!  I’ve also seen Jayson Megna play a fantastic offensive game in Tampa – I think he needs to sign with a Florida team because he’d be a 20-goal scorer.  I’ve also noticed that for as much as I’d like to believe, there is not a good game on every night.  Sometimes there are relatively few on and they are rather random and strange.

Take for example December 14th’s matchup pitting the San Jose Sharks taking the ice against the Senators in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.  Now normally, I would not pay this matchup any mind or even pay to watch it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hockey game and I’m down for hockey, but I don’t have a dog in the fight.  However, with time on my hands and the Pittsburgh – Boston game on commercial I took up the challenge.

Somehow I got taken in and didn’t go back to the Pens but that’s not the story.  I watched a guy take his stick and cross check another man to the back of the head.  Senators forward Mike Hoffman skated up behind Logan Couture and cross checked him to the back of his head, dropping the Sharks forward to the ice.  Couture unstrapped his helmet, lay on the ice and then was helped up gingerly by a trainer to the locker room.  Hoffman’s hit was deemed to be retaliation for a high stick on Sens’ all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson by Marc-Edouard Vlasic that was not called/seen by the officials.  Karlsson wasn’t injured on the play and had no visible marks from Vlasic’s actions if they were intentional or not.

Now, I’ve seen brutality in hockey.  I grew up in the time of Washington Capitals’ Dale Hunter checking the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon after scoring a goal.  Something I was completely unprepared for and I know Turgeon wasn’t either.  I remember the battles between Detroit and Colorado that turned into a bloody conflict with names like Draper, Lemieux, McCarthy and Maltby.  These were games where every hit seemed to push the game closer and closer to a full-out brawl.  I can remember seeing Kris Draper get checked into the boards by Claude Lemieux breaking bones in Draper’s face.  Or the blood left on the ice when McCarthy took revenge on Lemieux the next year – even after the Zamboni went through the stains were visible.

Maybe I’m getting older and starting to misunderstand things.  I understand when guys take up with the player that caused the injury – the Sens going after Vlasic or the Red Wings going after Lemieux.  I’m not even condoning their action but I understand. However, when everyone that is on the ice becomes open game to cross checks or slashes or high sticks that can cause permanent injuries then the league has to reel in the players.  The league has been trying to curb fighting for some time now but the problem with that is that the guys who fight are there for a reason.

On the same night when Chris Neil was honored for his 1,000 NHL game, Hoffman’s actions proved that men like Neil are necessary for this game to continue.  Neil, who has never scored more than 33 points in a season, has stood up for his teammates and led by doing what others won’t.   Hockey is a rough sport, I understand that and I think everyone who steps on the ice gets that as well – you don’t put on all that gear for nothing.

However, if you are a guy who can score there are going to be people who are going to go after you to put you off your game.  As long as checking is legal, someone is going to try to push that limit.  When they go too far and knock the leading scorer out of the game, what is the league going to do about it?  Suspend the other guy?  What does that harm the other team at that point?  That’s why teams have “enforcers.”  A team says “hey you want to push my guy I’m going to push your guy.”

Guys like Neil, Bob Probert, Tie Domi and Tiger Williams are remembered for their ability to fight but that doesn’t account for what they did for their teammates.  The name in the lineup shows that their teams weren’t going to allow opponents to push around the stars. When Hoffman hit Couture no one was there to go after him, San Jose had no Chris Neil. Hoffman wasn’t afraid of being knocked down by a guy like that so he could freely go after one of the opposition’s best players.

However, for the tough guys there is a tremendous toll this takes on their body and their mentality.  It isn’t easy for them to gear up every night to take on the other big guy in the opposition’s lineup or even to know that they are the target of the next up-and-coming rookie who wants to make a name for himself.  Derek Boogaard struggled with his role as a strongman during his time in the NHL with stints in Minnesota and New York.  Boogaard masked his physical and emotional pain with the pills he was given to sleep and pills he bought from dealers.  Boogaard would eventually succumb to his demons but not before leaving a lasting impression on those around him and leaving me to question what guys like him go through.

What is it about a hockey fight that people enjoy?  The brutality?  Going back to the root of human violence?  We preach to our children not to take out their differences through fisticuffs but it’s okay in hockey?  I struggle with the balance in hockey because I’m not a violent person.  Just like anyone else I enjoy watching a great hit or perk up when I see two guys drop the gloves.  However, after seeing Mike Hoffman drop Logan Couture I wonder how someone can do that to another human.  What goes through your mind?  Do you think “I’m just going to hit him in the back of the head?”  Maybe I’ve just never been put in that situation.

I know I’ll never play in the NHL and understand the pressures they go through but I can’t see myself ever hitting another human in the back of the head with a stick.  It’s disturbing.  I’m not disturbed by a lot and I am prepared for violence in hockey but I’m not prepared for someone trying to kill another human being.  If Hoffman hit Couture hard enough in the head could he have caused brain damage?  Could it have been deadly?  Possibly.  It’s bothersome to think that was the true intention of Hoffman.  I’d like to think these guys respect each other, but I’m not so sure anymore.  I can’t say I appreciate you if I chop you in the back of the head.  It’s a troublesome conundrum and I’m not sure which way to go, all I know is that I’m not in the NHL.  If I was I would hope there would be a Chris Neil there to watch my back, if the NHL gets rid of guys like him, it’s going to get worse.

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Why Can’t Hockey Be America’s Game?

Every time I go to Toronto I find myself drawn to the Hockey Hall of Fame and its marvelous displays of greatness.  Not that I make it to the Great White North all that much but it seems like since I’ve gotten older I’ve made it more than when I was younger.  I’ve been to the HHoF at least three times and to Toronto at least five but every single visit to the museum I’m always struck by the wonder of it all.

I know that Canada invented the game (although some may argue that it’s roots are in the Middle Ages – the game as we know now is Canadian in origin) and is celebrated as a religion country-wide.  In fact before it was replaced in 2013, the Canadian five dollar note featured children playing winter sports, including hockey, and wearing a number 9 sweater to honor  Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Included with the picture was a quotation from Canadian novelist Roch Carrier’s short story “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons.  We lived in three places-the school, the church and the skating rink-but our real life was on the skating rink.

Yeah I get you Roch, the rink is where I’d be too if I lived in Canada.  Cold, brutal winters where you are forced inside, you might as well find something to do right?  Time for some hockey and after your legs are burnt out from skating turn on the television and watch some Hockey Night in Canada?  I mean come on, we don’t have anything like that here in America.  Sure we have Monday Night Football, but Hockey Night in Canada, there’s no chance.  The tradition and the history, plus Canadians have Don Cherry and his outfits.  No contest.

But here’s the thing.  Most places in America don’t have access to a rink.  In the South you are lucky to find a rink.  It’s getting better but when I was growing up I could only tell you where one was.  Even living in New York, where you think there’d be a bunch – it’s cold!, I have to drive an hour and a half on a good day to find a rink to play hockey.  True, I’ve read Derek Boogaard’s biography where it talks about his father driving him all over.  If my daughter is going to play she’s going to have to go at least three hours in multiple directions to play.  All over the Eastern Seaboard.  I can’t imagine doing that as a kid to play a sport.

But what’s funny about hockey, is that for as much as it costs-and trust me it costs, at some point you start to find this itch.  You can’t get enough ice time.  You can’t get even time on your skates.  You want to feel that stick in your hands every chance you get.  Even getting back into it at my age, I’m proud to say that I skated for an hour without falling-finally!  I’m getting better but I’m still pretty terrible.  Watch me skate backwards if you need a laugh.

However I’m bothered though, for all that hockey means to Canada there will probably not be one Canadian NHL team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Yes the teams are loaded with Canadian players, but I want to see Toronto or Calgary or Ottawa or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Vancouver go deep in the playoffs.  It just doesn’t seem right not to see a Canadian team.  I don’t like it at all.  I realize some of it has to do with the direction of the club, some has to do with the value of the dollar and some has to do with the quality of the team but no matter I don’t like it.  I’ll trade a potential Florida team or two for a Canadian team any day.

I know these teams are all because of the Gretzky effect – the same Gretzky who perfected the so-called Gretzky buttonhook.  A move that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl perfected in a game on March 20, 2016 when he assisted on Bryan Rust’s goal.  The Pens took out the league leading Washington Capitals 6-2 that night behind Kuhnhackl and his spin moving self.  I’m not sure Gretzky could have made a better pass, this was text book.  Maybe Chris Becker taught him that at the Revolution Ice Rink in Pittston at skills night while he was playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pens?  It’s a possibility.  You never know where he may have picked that one up.  Then he sold him some Ribcore skates?  Just kidding Chris.

Because of Gretzky’s influence on the league we’ve seen more and more Americans jump into hockey.  I was probably exposed to more hockey because of him and I have to thank him for that.  It is one of those sports that gets in your blood.  No matter what other sport you think you love, until you actually get on the ice and strap on the pads, skates and grab a stick, you don’t know what you are missing.  I can understand why it’s Canada’s sport and you know what?  I don’t think we’ll ever be good enough at it to best them.  We’ll never have the access or the commitment to hockey.  Our focus is on baseball, basketball and most importantly football.  There’s no way we’ll take up hockey as our number one sport.  I think Canada should take hockey, mold it and each year make it better and better.  Each visit to Toronto make the HHoF a place that I never want to leave at the end of the day, a place where those that gave everything they had to the game have a chance to pay tribute to their teammates and those they respected.  Hockey deserves a place where it can be worshipped and I think that place will be and should always be Canada…O Canada.

Who’s Johnny, The Next 30 For 30?

I’m going to go ahead and comment on it, even though I feel like I’m wading into a hurricane with a kiddie raft.  I have been watching the drama unfold in Cleveland, Las Vegas, Texas and who knows where else for far too long to keep my mouth shut any longer: someone has to stop the Johnny Manziel downward spiral.

So let’s run this down with some highlights, er lowlights, and see what I’m talking about.

May 8th 2014 – Manziel is drafted by the Browns as the 22nd pick of NFL Draft.  Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said that a homeless guy convinced him to draft Manziel on the way to the draft.  Seems legit.

May 24 2014 – Johnny goes to Vegas instead of focusing on football.  This comes just after questions of his work ethic and character were brought up in the draft process.

June 6, 2014 – Manziel is pictured floating around in a pool on a giant swan focusing on a bottle rather than a football.  Apparently there is a playbook stuck to the bottom of the pool.

July 4, 2014 – Manziel is in Vegas where he was caught on camera with something that looks a lot like drugs.  I do not believe he was working on football here either.

August 18, 2014 – Manziel gives the Redskins the bird in a nationally televised event.  Stay classy.

November 22, 2014 – Manziel gets into a fight in a hotel in Cleveland with a fan and members of his entourage.  It almost feels like it had been too long since he did something, didn’t it?

December 23, 2014 – Manziel gets hurt and says he has to change in order to be successful.  You think?

December 26, 2014 – Change is short.  He throws a party and is late for treatment on his hamstring, although he is quick to deny there is a party.

January 3, 2015 – Flips off some fans at a club in Houston who end up taking it differently than Manziel expected.  They drench him in their drinks.  Cheers!

January 28, 2015 – Manziel decides that this time it’s really about change and goes to rehab.

April 11, 2015 – Manziel comes out of rehab a changed man.

April 17, 2015 – Manziel issues an apology to Cleveland, the fans, his teammates, the world, the universe and whoever else wants to listen. Everyone believes in the change.

June 17, 2015 – “Money” Manziel is gone.  No more?  Say it ain’t so Johnny.  Maybe the change is real?

October 12, 2015 – Manziel and his girlfriend have an argument after drinking.  The police are called because Manziel was driving like an ass and acting like an ass so his girlfriend tried to exit the vehicle while he was still driving.  It’s now beginning to get dark.  Jokes are now done.

October 25, 2015 – The NFL finally decides to investigate Manziel for domestic abuse.  I mean it only happened almost two weeks ago!?!

November 23, 2015 – More partying and there is video evidence of Manziel drinking and singing.  Instead of focusing on himself and/or football during Cleveland’s bye week he spent it on the one thing that is causing him to spiral out of control.

January 1, 2016 – Manziel spotted in Las Vegas at a casino when he was supposed to be going the following day to Cleveland to the team’s training facility for league mandated concussion protocol.  It had been reported in various sources he showed signs of a hangover in practice earlier in the week.

January 30, 2016 – Manziel is alleged to have assaulted his ex-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley.  Crowley has filed an affidavit of protection from Manziel because he struck her so hard he ruptured her eardrum.

According to ESPN.com:

“The affidavit states that Manziel dragged Crowley down some back steps to the hotel exit. As they passed a valet, Crowley states she pleaded with a valet as the pair left, saying: “Please don’t let him take me. I’m scared for my life!” The valet responded that he didn’t know what to do.

Manziel took her to Crowley’s car, where she states she got in the car’s passenger seat “against my will.” As he was backing up, she jumped out, ran across the street and hid in some bushes.

Manziel made a U-turn to where she was, grabbed her by her hair and threw her in the car.

“He hit me with his open hand on my left ear for jumping out of the car,” the affidavit states. “I realized immediately that I could not hear out of that ear, and I cannot today [Feb. 3, the date of the filing].”

Crowley writes that the argument continued on the way to her apartment and in the apartment itself.

“I continue to be extremely concerned for my health and well-being,” she wrote.

The judge issued the protective order Feb. 4, the day after Crowley’s filing.”

The Cleveland Browns organization has been hiding Manziel’s real problems for years because of the promise of talent.  With the partying it seems concerning that he isn’t taking care of himself and has some issues that he may be covering up.  Now that he has struck someone else it scares me to think about what else he might do when he is drinking.

And don’t get me started about Deion Sanders and his insinuation that Manziel’s ex-girlfriend is the reason for all the problems.  Sure, blame the victim of a ruptured eardrum and domestic abuse.  Go ahead.  Let’s not solve the problem.  Why does anyone even ask someone who clearly has no clue?

If you’ve never read the story of Derek Boogaard Boy on Ice by John Branch, it’s time to pick it up.  Branch examine’s Boogaard’s rise through the hockey ranks all the way up to the NHL all while battling his addictions: first with booze and then with painkillers and opioids.  Boogaard never got the publicity or was never the figure that Manziel is however his addictions remind me of Manziel’s.  Boogaard went to rehab multiple times and each time he came out he said he was going to be better and he was going to change but the only way he was going to change was if he was allowed to change and his team(s) never did that.

The Browns never made Johnny change.  They covered for him and you can bet the NFL did whatever it could.  The Wild kept finding ways to get Boogaard what he needed.  The NHL would do whatever they could.  Meanwhile both Manziel and Boogaard struggled with their addiction because they were stuck in the same spiral that only was/is getting longer, deeper and darker.  Boogaard’s spiral ended in a tragedy and now that we see Manziel at this junction it scares me to think that he’s teetering on something that’s going to end in the same place.

The Browns are saying they don’t want him, his agent doesn’t want him, the NFL might be saying the same soon, his ex-girlfriend filed a protection order, his family is pushing back and who knows what other people are pushing back against him.  I can only imagine that Johnny is fragile and there must be a million things running through his head.  If he truly is spiraling, this is the time to get help, I just wonder if he will get it?  Or five/ten/fifteen years from now will we be watching this on ESPN as a 30 For 30?

Dear John

I wasn’t prepared to watch the entire NHL All Star Game, only because 3 on 3 seemed like such a foolish idea.  Who came up with the idea to throw the stars of all 32 teams on the ice 6 at a time?  That’s how we make it more exciting?  That’s not how I get excited.

First of all, I’m not a fan of the shootout wins and losses.  I’m ok with a game ending in a tie.  I’m one of those soccer guys who believes that a game can end in a tie and still be exciting.  Why does a game have to end with a winner?  Why?  Cause that’s the American way and the NHL is now marketed toward an American fanbase.  No longer is the NHL geared toward where the game started.  Now it looks to expand in the money areas in the United States.  At the start of the All Star Game, no Canadian team was going to make the playoffs.

Second, yes sure there would be less players on the ice creating more space for playmakers but it also meant that there would be more reason to play defense.  Think about it.  When these guys play in the regular season they are trying not to lose.  Plus goal scoring is down and there’s no reason to think that 3 on 3 in an NHL ASG would solve that.

What would solve that problem would end up being a human interest story.  That’s exactly what the All Star Game is supposed to be about.  It’s supposed to be about the players.  It’s supposed to be about seeing the players you want to see.

Meanwhile, Ovi and Toews pull out.  The two players who are a. the most exciting goal scorer and b. the best playoff player.  Gee, thanks I can’t wait.  I realize that the city hosting the game can fill rosters, but many times it gets ridiculous.  This year, Roman Josi shouldn’t have made it to the ASG.  But I get it.  Make the host city happy.

What made the ASG exciting was the John Scott story.  A lifelong tough guy, Scott has made his living doing the job that many others couldn’t.  Unfortunately he’s taken crap from people ranging from Jeremy Roenick to Mike Milbury for being voted into the NHL ASG.  But Scott is no dummy.  A graduate of Michigan Tech with an engineering degree, Scott does the dirty work so that the finesse players can make goals.  What started as a joke ended with Scott talking about the experience on Derek Jeter’s Player’s Tribune.

Scott didn’t disappoint.  It was incredible to see him score two goals and be celebrated by his teammates as his team won the 3 on 3 competition.  Named as MVP by the fans, Scott was lifted off the ice by his team after the final whistle.  It was an amazing experience for Scott, whose playing career has now taken him to St. John’s Newfoundland.  Until now, not many knew the path Scott had taken to get to the NHL or what he had done once he had gotten to the League.  In fact, many people view players like Scott as just “goons” or enforcers who have no talent, but they are much more than that.

Scott is like those before him, Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, Bob Probert and Rick Rypien who did the job but never got the credit.  He’s an example of what it takes for the 700 players to be in the NHL, how much talent they must have to be in the league no matter whether it’s a top line guy or the forth line winger.  Even one plays a role and a winning team is full of players accepting their positions within the organization.

Unfortunately the position Scott plays also has a history of players dying early.  Boogaard, Belak and Rypien are examples of those taken way too early.  Scott seems to understand that hockey is just a game, just a way of life.  Unfortunately these guys had a problem that wasn’t seen or wasn’t addressed by doctors.  I’m sorry for the losses that the families and friends of these young men.  The depression that they suffered was missed by someone somewhere.  I’m not blaming anyone.  It’s easy to miss these things.  Maybe they never even talked about it.  Maybe they never even gave any indication that there was a problem.  But once they did, maybe it was too late.

It’s a terrible tragedy and while we celebrate John Scott we should never forget the losses that we have suffered from depression in hockey.  It’s real and it’s serious.  Don’t ever walk away, let someone talk, because it could be what saves someone’s life.  It could be the difference between a Derek Boogaard and a John Scott.