The most important, telling moment of your National Hockey League weekend quietly occurred Sunday morning, about an hour before the early slate of NFL games kicked off. It didn’t involve Dave Bolland, Craig Anderson or John Tortorella, and happened nearly two days after Ray Emery’s ridiculous end-to-end rush. (A development that generated such a flurry from the ant-fighting lobby, I half-expected the Saturday schedule to be cancelled completely, making way for a Hockey Summit to be commenced immediately.)
No, the biggest news passed silently under all those partisan voices that keep telling us how much trouble the game of hockey is in. The news of the weekend was this: Patrick Kaleta clearing waivers, assigned to AHL Rochester. Yep, that’s it. Kaleta clears.
Why, you wonder, is that bigger than Emery fighting an unwilling opponent? That was a random event that might occur once, twice a season. Kaleta’s game was a scourge on hockey 82 nights a year—or 82 minus however many games he was suspended for. Removing the Kaletas is far more impressive than inventing a rule to keep the odd goalie/bully in check. And why is it bigger than another biased rant on the instigator rule from a coach who—like all of them—only sees the transgressions committed by opponents, and never his own team? Well, the answer reminds me of a story.
A few years ago I was in a press box in Los Angeles, kibitzing with an executive from a team that employed Daniel Carcillo. He, like Kaleta (and you can insert Raffi Torres in here as well), is 10 times more dangerous than any fighter—at least you know when the fighter is coming. The exec said, and I paraphrase because it was not a conversation to be written down, “I’d be happy if Carcillo wasn’t in the league. But if he is going to be, I want him on my team instead of having to play against him.”
Over the weekend, 29 GMs had a chance to snap up Patrick Kaleta under those same pretenses. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis could have replaced Tom Sestito with a swifter, harder-to-play-against Kaleta; any number of soft, push-over teams could have seen him as an inoculation against being too easy to play against; Ottawa, in need of a spark, could have found one in the rambunctious, totally unpredictable winger. But 29 GMs looked at the waiver wire, and passed. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the biggest sign of progress against on-ice violence that we have seen in some time.
Kaleta never even got a chance to return from a 10-game suspension after his latest dangerous escapade. Buffalo GM Darcy Regier met him at the rink and gave him the Matt Cooke speech—but unlike Ray Shero in Pittsburgh, Regier would have been fine with losing Kaleta altogether. “I think there is a significant amount of work that he will have to do to redesign his game in order to give him an opportunity to play,” Regier said. “When we talked about it internally, if it was with us, it had to take place in Rochester.” It is a happy day that the Sabres finally came to that conclusion, but Regier gets no points here. He watched this guy endanger opponents for years, becoming a repeat offender and one of the few, true hatchet men to survive Rule 48, which covers off hits to the head.
It is quite a piece of evolution, however, that the climate of acceptance for players who play the way Cooke used to play, the way Torres and Carcillo continue to play, has cooled this much. Did any of you notice a tweet this weekend congratulating Brendan Shanahan and Gary Bettman for creating an environment in which Kaleta can no longer play? Or was your Twitter timeline—like mine—filled with that hip, anti-fighting lobby calling for the commissioner to invent a new rule on the spot to suspend Emery.
The best, most effective change is change from within. Change that is willed, not mandated. The micro example of that is Cooke, who has eschewed his former brand and found a way to still be an effective NHL player. The macro example is 30 GMs with an opportunity to have Patrick Kaleta on their team, and every single one of them saying, “No chance.”
Bravo, hockey. We’re getting somewhere with this.