Matt Cooke skate-gate has become the most contentious on-ice issue since Chara-Pacioretty, Steckel-Crosby and one of Cooke’s previous cheap shots, his hit on Marc Savard. These were hits that produced significant injuries that were borderline in terms of being clean albeit with a major and a game misconduct for Zdeno Chara for his hit helping Max Pacioretty’s head into the stanchion at the Bell Centre. None of these four hits produced a suspension or a fine; all four produced a ton of dialogue in print, social media, electronic and the airwaves. As will the next hit because they’ll never stop coming.
Hockey fans are a special breed of people. Reason being as soon as you invest any time or resources into your team or your favourite players there’s a level of understanding that the nature of the game lends itself to inherent risks the majority of which we are fine with and accept because with the checks, pun intended, are the balances. Problem is for the most severe of these incidents, the four aforementioned and a dozen others, the balances, payback if you will, has been muted.
Some would argue why even discuss payback? Isn’t that commentary reserved for the goon shows representing a much more violent time in NHL history? Therein lies the difference in viewing and commenting on the game of hockey today compared to era’s gone by. The overwhelming majority of hockey fans want a physical response if/when their stars are run or hurt. It’s expected and frankly it’s demanded. 23 of the 30 NHL teams are currently running at 99% seating capacity and ratings for national and regional broadcasts are setting record numbers. For the minority who sadly continue to push their anti-fighting agenda, typically some media types and zealots this must be troubling as not only are the viewing and attendance numbers up, the increases are coinciding nicely with an increase in fighting majors. So how does this apply to these egregious acts such as Cooke on Karlsson which are passed off as ‘part of the game?’ Simple, to move ahead with a safer on-ice product the NHL needs to reach back to an earlier era and it’s this paradox that will see the NHL continue to produce a steady stream of stars heading to the infirmary.
There is no way to prove intent on what Matt Cooke did to Erik Karlsson absolutely no way. But despite the forensic tests done by Aaron Ward and company on TSN I do not accept this was just a hockey play. It’s my belief that Matt Cooke knew full well who he was taking into the boards and because of this he had intentions of causing harm if possible. I believe it was his intention to drive Karlsson has hard as he physically could without it being a hit from behind and it was due to this that the left leg came up for leverage. If Karlsson had been turned even a degree it might have been a charley-horse as opposed to a cut Achilles, either way this was a total reckless unnecessary hit by a man who has made a career out of it. The NHL chose to do nothing. I fully realize and accept their hands were pretty much tied. I mean if Grabovski didn’t bite Pacioretty there was no way in hell this was going to be seen as anything untoward. I get all that, no problem. But if that’s what you want me to accept as a fan then accept what I want as a fan on the back end, retribution. I don’t care what anybody says, if you feel that this was 100% clean and 100% accidental, I don’t care. You ran the best player, you hurt him, badly. Back in the day there was a price to pay for those hits especially any that caused injury. Had that been Lafleur or Gretzky, two stars who didn’t fight, if they were touched in a violent manner you paid a physical price as did your teammates because they inevitably were drawn into the fray. Read below for some historical context on stars being run.
The Cooke’s of the world, Clutterbuck, Torres, take your pick, we have spawned a generation of them, they did not exist back in the day. They were dealt with swiftly and admonished in many cases even by their own teammates. The NHL has to now wait and see how the landscape unfolds for the Ottawa-Pittsburgh rematch a couple of months from now although with Ottawa’s roster this will likely follow the Cooke-Savard-Thornton-Cooke scenario and that’s if you can get Cooke to agree to fight. He picks his spots for that as he does his spots when to maim and injure. The more rules or sanctions you put in to hinder fighting in hockey, the ridiculous instigator rule or the wish of some in the media and in the blog-sphere for game misconducts to follow a fight, the more reckless the behavior will become on the ice. The more injuries and the more stars you will see on the IR. You can have your cake and yes you can eat it but be prepared to eat head shots, bites, kicks, hits from behind and the ongoing litany of gutless players making a living in a game where you once needed courage to put a sweater on.
INSTIGATOR RULE AND HOW STARS WERE PROTECTED BACK IN THE DAY
The instigator rule in hockey has actually been on the books since 1976. My research indicates it was first called against Dave Hutchison, a particularly truculent player in the 70’s and early 80’s who played over 700 games of pro hockey and had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 120 fights. The difference with the application of the rule circa 1976 was the definition; you had to ‘clearly’ be the instigator in the fight. This grey area allowed the officials to rarely call it and frankly it was no deterrent at all to fighting. Its reapplication if you will, in 1992 was much different. Pick the starter, any starter, just who had the gloves off first and that person was assessed a game misconduct. Three years later the rule was altered due to massive backlash from hockey people, executives, managers, coaches and players. Instead of a game misconduct the instigator was given a minor plus a misconduct to go along with his five minute major. Two years after that it was adjusted again to assess a further two minute minor if you start a fight and you are wearing a visor. The removal of this entire rule would change the landscape of the game but not in the way the anti-fighting zealots fear.
I know hockey fans hear this all the time; Wayne Gretzky was rarely hit or run because of Dave Semenko and later Marty McSorley. Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy were afforded the same protection. Here’s how incidents were dealt with circa early 1980’s. The Flyers Dave Hoyda took a huge run at the Islanders Mike Bossy. Clark Gillies took exception. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrKzi99J-Tk Dave Hoyda never ran Mike Bossy again. As a hockey fan, I don’t see anything wrong with that.
On November 5, 1967 Brian Conacher of the Toronto Maple Leafs was in a tough game against Boston. When Bobby Orr went to hit him Conacher slashed Orr and broke his nose. All hell broke loose. It would have probably been left to the players on the ice to settle it but this was Orr, he was hurt and bleeding so the Bruin bench emptied and they spent the next fifteen minutes hammering away at Conacher. Conacher was in four separate fights in this brawl including the last one where he really took a pounding from Ken Hodge. He never fought again in the NHL. Brian’s a great guy, I’ve met him, he was on the last Leaf team to win the Cup in 1967, he’s the son of legendary Charlie Conacher and he worked the booth with Foster Hewitt during the iconic Summit Series but as he told me one night at a function we both attended,’ I hit Orr and I was swarmed. You took your life in your hands if you hit Orr.’
The two really old school references about star players being run happened in 1929 and 1950 respectively. On November 23rd, 1929 the Montreal Maroons, arguably the toughest team in hockey, ever, set out on a mission in a regular season game against the Boston Bruins and that mission was to make sure Eddie Shore did not finish the game. It was a mandate, it was clear, it was reported as such by the media covering the game in the papers the next day and as a result Shore was in five separate fights with George Boucher, Dave Trottier, Hooley Smith, Red Dutton and Babe Siebert. This was hockey’s version of murder’s row only it was for fistic prowess more than scoring. There was so much blood on the ice in the third period they had to stop the game and scrape it off. The Maroons were successful. They ended up sending Shore to hospital but he took two of them with him. Trottier was admitted for a collapsed lung, Siebert for multiple cuts and lacerations. Shore’s chart read broken nose, four lost teeth, two black eyes, gashed cheekbone, multiple facial cuts and a concussion. Boston won the game 4-3; Shore had two assists before being forced out. Shore missed one game. When he returned for the next home game in Boston the owner of the Bruins, Charles Adams, presented him with a cheque for 500 dollars, keep in mind this was in 1929. The money was said to be 100$ for each facial scar he received from the Maroons. This is regarded as one of the most violent nights in NHL history.
On March 28, 1950 the Detroit Red Wings were playing game one of the semi-finals against Toronto. They were bitter rivals with the Leafs coming out on the top end of most the altercations and all of the important games on the score board for several years. They had game one well in hand, up 4-0 late when Ted Kennedy, a HOF player raced into the Detroit end pursued by Wing defenseman Jack Stewart. Also in pursuit was Gordie Howe. Howe had already fought in the game with Bill Juzda. Two years earlier Juzda had ended Toe Blake’s career with a hit, badly breaking his leg. Blake never played again. Howe came at Kennedy from the side. There is no video and what happened next is the 1950’s version of Cooke-Karlsson. Either Howe missed Kennedy and flew head first into the boards, badly cutting himself or as the Wings suggest, he was butt ended by Kennedy which knocked him off balance forcing him to fall into the boards. Either way the blood on the ice was minor compared to the head injury. Howe was rushed to hospital where an operation was needed to relieve the pressure on his brain. As a result he was left with a steady blinking condition for the rest of his life and although he did not play again that playoff year the rest of his story in hockey is well documented. What many of you may not know is how Detroit chose to handle this the next game, keep in mind this was a playoff series they were now down 1-0 in and facing the prospect of losing game two on home ice, going back to Toronto down 2-0. Here’s how it was reported in one of the papers of the day.
“It started in the second period when Lee Fogolin sent Kennedy rolling with a stick trip. As play halted and Referee Butch Keeling thumbed Fogolin to the penalty box, Ted Lindsay rushed up and cross-checked Kennedy back to the ice. Gus Mortson flew at Lindsay and fights broke out all over the rink. About 20 feet out from the Detroit goal, Jim Thomson fell and Leo Reise bludgeoned him across the head and shoulders with his stick. The Toronto defenseman was momentarily defenseless as Reise, apparently not satisfied, slashed away. By this time Kennedy was on the other side of the rink and Reise moved over to get in some more stick work, this time across Kennedy’s shoulders.
Lindsay returned and rushed at Kennedy, his stick held high: then Abel came on flailing with his fists. A fan grabbed Kennedy and held his arms as other Wings struck the Leaf captain. Toronto Goalie Turk Broda, handicapped by 35 pounds of leg pads, trundled over to assist his teammate. Abel and Lindsay persisted in their efforts at mayhem.
When the fighting finally subsided the penalties were sorted out, the ice was cleared of debris and the game resumed, with Detroit the ultimate victor. The Wings trooped happily into their dressing room with Lindsay marching proudly at their head shouting for all the world to hear: “We won for Gordie!”
The Wings went onto win the series and the Stanley Cup. It should be noted that Howe never accused Kennedy of anything deliberate but the perception of what may have happened was enough for his teammates to do what they felt was right, circa 1950. Matt Cooke would not have lasted one game in 1929, 1950 or 1980 and there are many, many fans, myself included who would like to see the players be able to police themselves like they used to. In the meantime enjoy the game circa 2013 with Marc Savard done and totally preventable injuries to stars like Hossa, Crosby and Karlsson a regular part of your nightly sportscast and TSN reenactments.