The nastiness of the Stanley Cup playoffs
These are the overriding images of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs: gloves and sticks and blood littering the ice, disturbing brawls, players dazed on all fours and, in the most somber snapshot so far, the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa unconscious on a stretcher after a brutal hit to the head.
"I've never seen anything like this,'' NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. No one has. Here's a look at what has happened in these playoffs, why it is happening and how to stop it.
What has happened?
The playoffs are 8 days old, and already, eight players have been suspended. That includes Phoenix's Raffi Torres, who is suspended indefinitely and scheduled to have a hearing Friday for his hit Tuesday night on Hossa.
But it doesn't include several incidents that could have prompted suspensions such as Nashville's Shea Weber repeatedly slamming the head of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg into the glass in a move straight out of the WWE.
Three suspensions belong to a Pittsburgh team that embarrassed itself with a disgusting display of goonery in Sunday's Game 3 loss to Philadelphia. What does it say when a skilled team that has condemned chippy play becomes the dirtiest in the league? What does it say when that team’s top player, Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player on the planet, fights?
So far, players have been suspended for ugly incidents such as cross-checking an opponent in the throat, drilling an opponents' head into the glass with an elbow and bowling over an unsuspecting goalie behind the net.
"I'm all for good hockey hits,'' McGuire said. "But these hits to the head, the attempts to injure, they have no place in our game.''
Why is it happening?
Intensity, tension and physical play are ratcheted up in the playoffs. The higher the stakes, the higher the passion. Over a seven-game series, intimidation is an integral and ongoing part of the game plan.
However, fighting and cheap shots often decrease during the postseason because there is too much on the line. One bad penalty can cost you a game, and one game can cost you a series. Players known for playing on the edge often see less ice time because teams want their most talented players on the ice.
But so far, players of every skill level have not only crossed the line, they've poured kerosene on it and scorched it beyond recognition. Quite simply, players have lost respect for another.
It's not just in hockey. It's a societal thing,'' McGuire said. "I think people in general have lost respect for one another, and it has carried over into everything and all sports, including hockey. I've talked to linesmen, guys who have been around 10, 15 years, and they tell me that the amount of disrespect on the ice is the worst they’ve ever seen.''
What can be done to stop it?
The NHL needs to get tougher with the suspensions -- usually a game or two -- because clearly the message is not getting through.
Take Torres. He has been suspended twice for a total of six games in the past year. Obviously, his previous suspensions did not serve as a deterrent Tuesday, when he delivered his vicious, leaping, shoulder-to-head hit on Hossa.
Former NHL star Brendan Shanahan is the NHL's disciplinarian. His mandate is to help cut down on hits to the head that cause concussions.
"He has a thankless job, but it's clear that the punishments need to be more severe,'' NBC's McGuire said. "The league needs to be more like the NFL, which has become draconian, but it has been effective. Look at how the NFL has cracked down on the Saints with bounty-gate. Look at their no tolerance for hitting quarterbacks in the head. Their punishments are severe, and that’s how you get things done.''
While no one doubts Shanahan's good intentions or the difficulty of his job, his punishments have fallen somewhere between inconsistent and laughable. Torres will meet with Shanahan on Friday, and Shanahan has the perfect opportunity to send a message to Torres and every other player in the league.
He should suspend the repeat offender for the remainder of the playoffs and then for 41 games next season -- that's half a season. That sends a message. That will have players thinking twice the next time they put a player in his crosshairs.
Players aren’t getting the message with suspensions of two or three or four games. Shanahan needs to add some zeroes to those suspensions -- as in 20, 30 and 40 games.
"Make players scared of doing something stupid,'' McGuire said.
The other person who needs to step up? NHL Players' Association chief Donald Fehr. Instead of spending his time bellyaching about realignment or flexing his muscles for the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, Fehr should do what he is supposed to do first and foremost: protect the health and well-being of his players.
He should work with the league on stiffer suspensions. Don't fight on Torres' behalf, fight on Hossa's behalf. He should send an e-mail to every player immediately, an e-mail that says, "Guys, enough! Stop the cheap shots. Stop the dirty hits. We are destroying ourselves!''
Until Shanahan gets tougher and Fehr steps up and the players start respecting one another, sadly we'll see fewer highlights of players celebrating dazzling goals in these playoffs and more clips of players being carted off on stretchers.