Pens-Bruins: NHL's Caveman Culture Will Persist Until Someone Loses a Lot of Money (Tuesday Slew)

Jared Wickerham

Lawyers and rich guys who never fight don't give a damn about fighting.

Everyone who has waxed self-righteous in the aftermath of the Penguins-Bruins game last Saturday and the multitude of non-hockey that took place therein, everyone who has called for an end to fighting and an end to cheap shots and a change in this or that, who bemoaned the lack of respect and the dismissal of The Code and the failure of NHL frontier vigilantism -- all of you are off the mark.

The NHL is run by lawyers and the purse strings are held by the rich. Few to none of these men have likely ever been in a fight. They are the only ones who can affect real change when it comes to fighting, or cheap shots, or The Code.

Until someone convinces them that their brand's fighting culture is costing them money, real money and a lot of it, they won't give it another thought.

Not one.

The timing for a nationwide display of the NHL's inherent childishness couldn't be worse for a group of managers which is currently gathering in Pebble Beach to spark cigars and sit around agreeing with each other about how great that $5 billion Canadian broadcast deal is for their bottom line sport.

But that's exactly what the NHL got when the Penguins and Bruins gathered for a Saturday evening wrack-up that was broadcast by their eponymous 24-hour cable network.

Following that game, three players are on injured reserve, two with concussions. Two offenders are being processed by the gears of the supplemental discipline and player safety team.

All told, five NHL players from the two top teams in the Eastern Conference will be out of action for periods of time ranging from five games to indefinite, because it's easier for grown men to act like children than anyone involved in the whole ridiculous process is ready to admit.

The kicker? All of this rides hot on the coattails of a class-action suit that's brewing between concussed former NHL players and a league they allege had systematically downplayed the long-term health detriments of such pugilism as North America saw on display Saturday night. If we're lucky -- and when it comes to NHL player safety, this is what passes for good luck -- the timing of Saturday's incidents and the player class-action suit might put league powers on notice.

That is obscene.

It seems outrageous to suggest, but anyone who wants to affect change when it comes to dirty play in the NHL needs to follow the money. Drop the obnoxious proselytizing about when it is and isn't honorable to fight. Forget the frame-by-frame deconstruction of an in-game play that's meant to calculate the intent of a player who wouldn't give you that information for all the Gordie Howe hat tricks in the world.

Everything that went on Saturday exists because the people in charge of hockey see no problem with it and the people in charge of them have seen no direct line from such actions to a decline in their profits.

Rules about fighting and similar conduct are passed down by the league's general managers, all of whom report directly to their respective team's owner or owners. As much is true of commissioner Gary Bettman and his team, all of whom also report directly to the owners.

To wit, this is a group that:

  • Oversaw the first season-cancelling lockout in the history of North American pro sports in 2005, after which players saw their share of NHL revenues cut back by double-digit percentages,
  • Oversaw a second lockout in less than a decade in 2012, torpedoing almost half of the regular season schedule out of existence over a seven percent pilfering of hockey-related revenues from their players while doing almost nothing to ensure that another lockout won't take place at the end of the current CBA, and
  • Has posted record revenues in eight consecutive seasons (all 30 teams saw their net value increase after the lockout!) and yet has still seen owners accept -- or, perhaps more accurately, extort -- billions in municipal bonds and other public monies in order to finance arenas which the municipal bond-funding public can expect to be locked out of once every decade.

This is the group in charge. Appeals to justice ring hollow. It's all about the money.

Bear in mind that his league that is currently facing what will likely be a nine-figure lawsuit from its former players, one based largely on the concussions inherent to the fighting and vicious contact that remain legal and, to some, essential parts of the game.

How has the league worked to protect players against the damaging effects of cheap shots and fighting? Since the 2005 lockout, no player has received a suspension of more than 25 games (even that instance was reduced from 25 games to 21 by the commissioner's office).

If that's the league's version of damage control, outdoor games and ticket prices ought to be the last thing that gets discussed on the fairways this week.

The NHL is conscious of its image, to be sure. What happened Saturday is a definitive black mark, and the NHL will do something about it. But the pro sports PR playbook doesn't count on that something being real, actionable change.

Everyone involved is looking for a deflection.

There's nothing the league would like more than to downplay the harmful and brand-tarnishing nature of the whole episode. The announcement of the Canadian TV deal conveniently provided such a deflection for the initial revelations of the players' class action suit.

Both stories dropped within the same week. Guess which one got more play from the league's official outlets?

The NHL Board of Governors meetings taking place Monday and Tuesday of this week will churn out plenty of narratives to gloss over the Penguins-Bruins incident. The Canadian broadcast deal. The likelihood of the salary cap expanding on the basis of such revenue increases. Possible expansion teams. International competition. Future Olympics.

Anything. Anything at all, so long as it doesn't force the league to take a good, hard look at problems that won't be easily solved.

Eventually, one hopes that this kind of behavior would put their business model at stake. And if the NHL fails to address the events that took place Saturday, it will be because no one figures to lose enough money for it to matter.

So don't invoke The Code. Unwritten rules can be very hard to read, after all, and we've seen enough examples to know that players interpret the code to be whatever suits them, whether during criminal on-ice activity or in the hollow locker-room expiations that follow.

Don't make appeals to honor or respect or the right way of doing things. That's bullshit. Go for the money, right away. Player salaries, league revenues, all of it. That's exactly what it will take to get this kind of conduct out of the NHL, a sport that will exist on the fringes of the American sports consciousness until it can prove that it's not fielding a league full of self-righteous vigilantes.

The NHL holds the power to separate offending players from enough money to make them rethink their conduct. Until someone proves to the league that such conduct is separating them from enough money to rethink their own archaic product, nothing is going to change.

Tuesday Slew is a weekly feature that runs throughout the season on every day but Tuesday, apparently. You can reach James with your compliments and praise on Twitter, at @Slew_James.

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