Can you recall an opening round to the NHL playoffs this intense, this rough, this controversial?
And fans are liking the action as much as Sidney Crosby doesn’t like the Philadelphia Flyers. Buoyed by a hot team in a hot market (New York Rangers) and a first-round Flyers-Penguins series worthy of a conference final stage, TV viewership is higher than an Arron Asham stick. NBC reported a 50 per cent increase in its NHL playoff audience over the weekend.
But how much of that spike should be attributed to our love for the controversial and downright violent is up for debate.
Nine suspensions were doled out by NHL chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan in the first week of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, already eclipsing last season’s grand playoff total of seven, and the heftiest ruling could be gaveled down on Friday when the league affixes a number to the indefinite ban of repeat-offender Raffi Torres.
If you’ve been out of reach from anything that tweets, streams or blogs for the last 48 hours, the Phoenix Coyotes player left his feet to hit Marian Hossa. The Chicago Blackhawks star left Game 3 via stretcher.
Like the rest of us, four-time Stanley Cup winner and Ottawa Senators analyst Denis Potvin has been watching and breaking down the banging and bruising. He compares our fascination with the uglier aspects of some fantastic conference-quarterfinal hockey to our interest in UFC or NASCAR.
"We don’t want to see people hurt, but we’d love to see a car crash and both drivers walk away," Potvin said. "I don’t want to be crass, but yesterday I was driving to the airport and someone jumped or fell out of a 41-story building right here in Toronto. There had to be a thousand people trying to look at the body. We’re all like that. We’re all curious."
The phrase "old-time hockey" has been dusted off this week. According to NHL lore, the game was rougher and tougher in Potvin’s playing days, the 1970s and ’80s. Some have posited that we’re enjoying a renaissance. But was the game really this chippy 30 years ago?
"Maybe it was," Potvin added, "but I guarantee you it wasn’t come the second, third and fourth round. Because it became more of a risk to take a bad penalty, and it got to be much better hockey as the rounds went on, so I expect we’re going to see much more of the same thing."
One week deep into the first round and already fans have cheered, jeered and debated as superstars have dropped their gloves and thrown visor-high crosschecks, goaltenders have been spun silly, and penalty minutes have been racking up at a rate not seen since 1990.
Why now? What is it about the 2012 postseason that has cranked the intensity and nastiness to 11?
Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos doesn’t believe that some magical chippy switch has been flipped, but rather that the leash on players’ conduct has gradually been lengthened since October.
"What they were able to get away with early in the season and later in the season changed. It’s like anything else: you give someone an inch, they’ll take a mile. I think the guys have pushed the envelope in these playoffs," said Kypreos, who will be discussing the controversies of Round 1 along with a panel of analysts on a special edition of HOCKEY CENTRAL called "Open Season" on Thursday night. "Over the course of history, you always have guys that go to the extreme, and some guys cross the line. Because there’s so much at stake, probably more than ever before, you got a few more guys that have crossed the line. But I don’t buy that this has gone totally off the rails and that it’s a free-for-all. There’s still a few guys that’ll get punished heavily, and you move on."
Some are hesitant to move on, though. The Washington Capitals released a statement disagreeing with the NHL’s banning of their star centre, Nicklas Backstrom (crosscheck) for one game. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville tore into the refereeing after Torres’ hit on Hossa went unpenalized. And even Detroit’s decidedly uncontroversial Henrik Zetterberg has questioned the decision-making of his former teammate Shanahan, who gave Nashville Predators defenceman Shea Weber a $2,500 fine and no suspension for slamming Zetterberg’s head into the glass in the manner of Koko B. Ware.
Rough math equates Weber’s fine to a $16 invoice for someone earning a common salary of $50,000.
"I don’t believe it was a big miss, but optically the one that upset a lot of people was Shea Weber on Zetterberg," Kypreos added." Do I think Zetterberg was hurt real bad? No. But I think the optics of a guy grabbing another guy’s head and smashing it into the glass sends a confusing message to the players and the fans."
Potvin believes the root of the problem lies with an NHL discipline system with too many layers, one that relies on makeup punishment instead of immediate penalties, and not Shanahan himself.
"He’s just come off the ice. He understands a lot of what most people don’t. You don’t necessarily take Weber out of one game when the solution would have been a five-minute power-play for Detroit. Now Shanahan has to make an evaluation based on a lot of bullshit, when the referee could have said, ‘Five minutes for roughing.’
"What hurts most? Three goals are scored by Detroit (on the hypothetical power-play) — end of series," Potvin said. "When you didn’t have the supplementary discipline, calls were made on the ice that were more damaging to the team at the immediate time. Somebody does something wrong, you slap his wrist right away. You don’t wait till next week to reevaluate."
Stripping the referees of the power to dish out final punishment leaves them handcuffed, Potvin argues. Why call a penalty when the play will be reviewed ad nauseam in some control room a few area codes away the next day? Non-calls consequently snowball to worse issues: players believe they can get away with more, and teammates feel obligated to retaliate for unpunished infractions.
"There’s a real disconnect here, and I would be very concerned if I were the league, because if you’re micromanaging, then you’re taking everything out of the hands of the people that are onsite," Potvin continued. "There should be a lot more penalties handed out, and you wouldn’t need the suspensions. Torres as an example. Phillips as another example. What are the referees doing? Weber as an example. On and on we go. No penalties called on vicious hits — and there is a rule for charging. A charging call can be anything from a minor to a game misconduct to a match penalty, yet nothing was called and a guy gets taken off on a stretcher."
Some have argued that respect among players has diminished, and Potvin concedes that it does appear so. But both Kypreos and Potvin agree that the game has changed since their respective heydays. The pace is faster, the athletes are stronger, the equipment is paradoxically safer yet more dangerous, the media attention is heightened (this article not exempt), and the stakes are loftier.
With a salary cap comes parity, and with parity comes a real belief that your team can win it all. With that belief comes a willingness to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means violence.
"You have representation from all over the world, and the Stanley Cup is now more important than anything else — even more than the Olympics," said Potvin, one of the game’s most dominant defencemen from 1973 to 1988. "On April 11, 16 teams could make an argument why they could win. All the goaltenders are good. The Florida Panthers (up 2-1 versus the New Jersey Devils) are thinking they can repeat ’96, and well they should. When you had 1 against 16, it wasn’t the same: Montreal Canadiens against the Oakland Seals."
But even though so much has changed in the game — the awareness of concussions being No. 1, Kypreos notes — there is a basic hockey philosophy that hasn’t gone anywhere. And likely never will.
"You can always tighten the screws up on boundaries, but I get a chuckle when the league sends a message with a certain suspension. We’ve had some heavy suspensions in the (past), and yet we still see guys go out there and do things they shouldn’t do," Kypreos said. "Pick any generation, any era, and you’ll look at a guy and go, ‘Are you crazy? Why’d you do that?’ ‘Because I wanted to win. Because I thought that would help us win.’ That will never change."
"I saw guys swallow their tongue because of a hit," he said. "But you live with it. You see it and go, ‘Oh, man. Who did that to you? Let’s go get him.’ "