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February 15, 2011 :: 11:46am ET
Same Merde, Different Day

LOS ANGELES, CA -- The aftermath of the Penguins-Islanders battle has defenders of the NHL circling the wagons. Again.

There are 1,230 games in the NHL regular season and all it takes is one to have its critics come to fore with the age old claim that the game is barbaric to its core. While as regrettable as the antics were at the end of last week's Penguins-Islanders game, it's certainly not a sign that the game is going to regress to the days which The Broad Street Bullies brawled their way to back to back championships in the 1970's.

Was it a black eye for the sport?

While the actions of both teams, especially the Islanders, were indefensible, it's a rare and isolated incident carried over from the hostility of a contest from a week prior in Pittsburgh.

Could it have been prevented? Of course, and we'll delve into the prevention part later in this passage.

The sports media that don't regularly cover the sport were rubbing their collective hands together when the images of Trevor Gillies taunting a concussed Eric Tangardi and Eric Godard sprinting from the bench to defend Brent Johnson (a goalie now cruising for a fight once he got the taste) got repeated ad nauseum on the nightly sports highlight package. Hopefully, the haters attacked the NBA with the same vigor when Ron Artest caused a riot in the stands in Detroit and called for reparations from the New York Mets, who included profits from the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme in their cash flow projections over the past few years.

A few misguided kids chasing each other around the ice looking for fight doesn't come close to people losing their life investments with one of the benefactors being a major league baseball franchise, so perspective please.

There's a fringe element in every professional sport, the NFL hands out fines every Monday for hits that go unpenalized during a game. There are habitual offenders, like Pittsburgh's James Harrison (interesting that he plays in that city, something in the air, perhaps?) who threatened to quit the game claiming his been targeted by the league for repeat offenses. The rules had to be changed to protect the likes of Tom Brady from players getting taken out at the knees and the effects of steroids on players from the 1970's show that America's Game is more dangerous than the game we enjoy and cover. MLB rocketed back to popularity through use of the syringe, while the NHL is the only major sport where drug use has never been an issue.

So while the collateral damage from this incident was greater than usual, the NHL needs to do a better job both before and after they occur to insure they're limited (note we didn't say eliminated). A cursory review of the NHL schedule should have had the league office antennae up with the prospect of a rematch nine days from the night they drove old Rick DiPietro down. Added to the fact that the Islanders recalls from Bridgeport prior to the game didn't conjure up thoughts of Trottier, Bossy and Potvin (well, Billy Smith, yeah). The storm clouds were forming even without the loading up of the New York roster, so a meeting prior to the game the league headquarters was mandatory.

To add further drama, or perhaps comic relief, right in the middle of the discussion parachutes in Mario Lemieux. You remember him, don't you?

Arguably the most talented player to strap on the skates, now owner of the Penguins, and has adeptly avoided any Jerry Jones-like outbursts since assuming control of the Penguins. He's been as successful off the ice as he's been on it, rescuing the Penguins from the brink to build a model franchise with the current day best player. Mario took an unusual time to emerge from the shadows to air his beef with the league. It seems as if 2011 has made everyone in Pittsburgh a tad bit sour, they lost the Winter Classic, Sidney Crosby to a concussion and Evgeni Malkin to a season ending injury and now the skirmish with the far out of contention Islanders.

Mario made an appearance at the Legends Game, but has done little to lend his huge celebrity to promote the game, not even holding a press conference during the Penguins win in the Finals two seasons ago. Shame on him. Further more, he wasn't the one that wrote the $100,000 check to the NHL at the end of the day; it was Charles Wang, the man who is arguably the best owner the league has due to his willingness to endure tens of millions in losses every year, be stuck in the worst building and lease in professional sports, yet continue to write checks. The league's No.1 mission should always be to seek out those owners; i.e. small mouths and big pockets. We'll skip the part about Mario employing Matt Cooke, because as unlikely as it appears, he's not a direct party to this chapter of the story.

It's not that Lemieux has a point, but to think the league will revert to caveman status is nonsense. If anyone watched the Skills Competition during All Star Weekend, they can't deny the fact that the league is as skilled as it's ever been and a number of its brightest stars aren't legal drinking age. Even rugged third and fourth liners need a have a smidgen of touch around the net. George Parros protects the likes of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu for the Anaheim Ducks but only because he chips in a goal every so often.

The scribes that bang on the sport haven't ventured into a hockey locker room and spoken to this great group of athletes, without entitlement and with a true love of the sport. The reality is the Islanders-Penguins fracas was viewed by a select few, it was at the tail end of the game that was a blowout and aired on MSG+ in New York (can't think more than a few 100 looking in there) and FSN Pittsburgh. If you wanted real violence over the weekend, you should have tuned to Showtime and saw Fedor Emelianenko's face get re-arranged during the Strikeforce MMA telecast. For those sports fans under a rock for the past five years, it's the fastest growing sport because, after all, we DO want a level of violence in our sports, or at least the cats who are 25 to 34 years old do.

Since there are consequences for bad behavior, we'll drop the blame on this one on the operations side of the business. It's failed here, not the players, coaches or even whining, former superstar owners. Qualifications to work in operations and executive suite of the NHL appear to be from three backgrounds:
1) be successful in the front office of a more successful sport (Gary Bettman, NBA and COO John Collins, NFL)
2) be an attorney (Bill Daly)
3) be a former hockey player (Colin Campbell, Mike Murphy, Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake).

Nowhere in the recruitment process is an accomplished business person, and it's hurting the league. There are too many poor decisions in the front office, like an outdated video review process or the inability to exact proper, consistent and more punitive punishment for dangerous plays. The NHL claims to be the most technology-savvy league, but it's the only one with a 'war room'. The NBA, NFL and MLB have figured out a way to have instant replay review onsite. It defies logic that the NHL can't provide monitors to give officials the ability to confirm calls.

A league that severs a $50,000 fine to a GM when he questions more than one call going against his team but does nothing to another that loads of a roster of dubious talent with the sole purpose of exacting revenge on an opponent doesn't project a major league image. No wonder detractors never seem to go away and one long-term suspension for a future offender will show that the league is serious about curbing unnecessary violence.

It's time to the league to be run like a business, not like a sport. It has to figure a way to limit concussions and keep its players healthy.

Love him or hate him, you can't have Sidney Crosby missing weeks when you can't figure out how to limit this type of injury. The Penguins-Islanders tête-à-tête is just a sidebar to a global issue that impedes the game from getting momentum in the sports landscape in the US, it takes a step forward with the Winter Classic and revamped All Star Game and one back with needless negative exposure just a few weeks later.

The NFL may be a few weeks away from making a decision far more stupid than anything the NHL has ever done if the owners press the players for huge givebacks on their CBA and a lockout results. Imagine a Fall 2011 with no football; a huge opportunity is at hand, if and only if the NHL gets itself in order.

It's time to make the Great Leap Forward. If not now, then when?

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.



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Nov. 01, 2010 A Fine Mess
Oct. 07, 2010 Two Bucks on Canucks
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