It’s safe to say that I’m thankful the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t make the playoffs this season. In fact, that’s about the only thing that’s safe about the National Hockey League right now.
Coming home after a poetry reading last night—the fire and brimstone fury of Amiri Baraka—I flipped on the television to catch whatever first-round playoff action might be on. The eight opening series of the Stanley Cup tournament are the bounty that every hockey fan has been anticipating for months. Regardless of the match-ups, you tune in because this is what hockey is all about. The quest for the Cup. Cue the trumpet fanfare and roll the footage of hockey’s silver grail turning slowly in a spotlight.
But as my television screen came to life from darkness, I didn’t see the graceful action of game play. No skaters darting about like a school of fish to contest the puck. No goalies flashing their pads or gloving point shots.
I saw Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, prone and bound to a board, being lifted onto a stretcher. I saw paramedics strapping orange foam wedges around his head to immobilize it for his ambulance ride to the hospital.
And I saw Phoenix forward Raffi Torres looking like the cat that ate the canary—or in this case, the Coyote that concussed the Blackhawk—sitting on the bench, unpenalized, waiting for his next shift.
Soon the replays came, from every available angle, both in slow motion and at game speed. At center ice, Hossa touches the puck on to a teammate, skates a half stride, then curls a tight pirouette. As Hossa comes out of the turn, Torres rockets into view at tremendous speed, leaps at Hossa, leading with his shoulder, thrusting his shoulder upward as a soccer player would to head a ball.
Torres’ shoulder hits the side of Hossa’s head with maximal force. Torres’ skates are, at the moment of contact, a foot above the ice. Instantly, Hossa is airborne as well, tumbling, limp, through space. He crashes to the ice on his back, thankfully somehow not bashing the back of his head. Then, Hossa’s still.
After a few replays, I notice a third figure. The referee in front of the boards a few feet away is focused on Hossa from well before Torres hits him, all the way through the hit. The referee’s head tilts down to follow Hossa’s body’s descent. But his arm doesn’t go up.
Actually, his arm goes up slightly as the official leans back, shying away from the force of the hit, ready to shield his face from a flying stick or glove. Wouldn’t want to get hurt.
This is playoff hockey, now. It’s gotten to this point:
- Outrageous, dangerous nastiness in the Penguins/Flyers series. Three suspended Penguins skaters are sitting out game four because they could not contain their rancor after falling behind in the series 0-3. James Neal, among the league’s leaders in goal-scoring during the regular season, will likely watch his mates get swept back to Pittsburgh for several wicked hits including an open-ice leveling of Sean Couturier away from the puck. Neal’s ignominy is just the tip of the iceberg for his highly favored team.
- Brutal, inhuman retaliation in the Predators/Red Wings series. As the horn sounded on Nashville’s game one victory, defenseman Shea Weber took the back of Detroit winger Henrik Zetterberg’s head in his hand and calmly smashed it into the corner glass. The excuse? Zetterberg kinda slashed Weber just before.
- Suspensions and fines galore, but so inconsistently determined that it seems apparent that the league discipline czar Brendan Shananan (the 22nd-most penalized player in league history, by the way) has no concept of the violence as a league-wide phenomenon and not merely isolated incidents.
Torres has been suspended indefinitely by the NHL pending a disciplinary hearing on Friday. But he finished the game last night. Torres even drew a penalty on the play, as Chicago’s Brandon Bollig went after him and received a ten-minute misconduct penalty, dismissing him from the game.
Phoenix went on to win in overtime to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Talk about adding insult to injury. Game four is Thursday night in Chicago before the series returns to Arizona over the weekend. But who wants to watch this? I sure don’t. At this rate, it’s a matter of time before the ambulance goes to the morgue instead of the hospital.
That’s where three former players went this past off-season. Rick Rypien, suffering from severe depression, killed himself in August. Two weeks later, Wade Belak did the same. Derek Boogard, whose life and death were detailed in a three-part New York Times feature in December, overdosed on pain medication and alcohol last May. All fighters or “enforcers,” their deaths prompted sincere mourning, as well as a promising conversation about how concussions and head trauma might lead to mental illness. The door was open for real player-safety changes in the sport.
But the league, fearing the possibility of bad press (and lawsuits) if they betrayed the slightest appearance that hockey could be bad for a player’s health, didn’t even go halfway through that door. They made some rule changes, but they don’t enforce them. They implemented new protocols about how teams handle possibly concussed players, but they’re unwilling to implement obvious improvements to player equipment.
League commissioner Gary Bettman witnessed the Torres hit on Hossa in person. When the Chicago press asked him about the startling frequency of high-level violence so far in the playoffs, Bettman did the kind of lawyerly two-step that we’ve come to expect from him.
“A lot of it is perception and misperception. The game is physical, the game is emotional. These games are hard-fought. Having said that, I’d say player safety is monitored closely and being dealt with in an appropriate way.”
Marian Hossa’s also being monitored closely—by medical personnel in his home. Late last night, he was released from the hospital. Is this an instance of misperception, commissioner? There’s been no official diagnosis of a concussion yet but it seems a matter of scheduling the press conference to announce it. Hossa, who led the Blackhawks in scoring this season, won’t be skating again anytime soon.
As for Torres, the league may or may not throw the book at him. His resume of suspensions for dangerous hits is piling up. And he has a particular appetite for scrambling the brains of Blackhawks. As a Vancouver Canuck last season, Torres, in his first game back after a suspension, erased a portion of Brent Seabrook’s short-term memory in another somehow unpenalized head-hunting hit behind the Chicago net. He’s as dirty as they come. But his brand of neck-up predation has become typical this year.
Will a team even make it to the Cup finals?
When will the league figure out how to clean up this clown act? Perhaps the United Center organist was answering this question by playing “Blue Moon” while the medics carted Hossa off.