As it always is, the NHL is in a mess of its own making. Rarely do you get a team decrying a league’s discipline system, at least not in hockey. Gary Bettman rarely tolerates stepping out of line like the Rangers did yesterday when the news broke that the Department of Player Safety doesn’t even want to mention Tom Wilson’s name, much less do anything about his heinous and, let’s face it, potentially lethal ways.
The Rangers took the unprecedented step of calling for George Parros, the current head of DoPS, to be ousted, and they have good cause. When someone like Wilson is running around unchecked and putting every single player in danger, clearly the DoPS has shirked its responsibility. And it will be responsible for whatever Wilson goes on to do, as well as infractions that any other unhinged gargoyle in shoulder pads commits thanks to feeling freed of consequences due to Wilson’s barely noticeable fine.
Ever since its creation, the Department of Player Safety has rarely been anything other than a complete joke. Brendan Shanahan, its creator, tried to be as transparent as possible via the use of videos, explaining each and every suspension — which generally got him mocked in hockey circles.
Things have never gotten better, under either Stephane Quintal or now George Parros. For fuck’s sake, even Chris Pronger was in the department for a while. And the whole thing still has Colin Campbell’s grubby fingerprints all over it, and he long ago proved to be a world class moron who still thinks it’s 1987 and any problem can be solved by sending out some Shane Churla clone.
Whatever Parros may claim, you can’t have former goons running discipline. They can’t view these things in the proper sense. Anything Wilson does is something Parros probably thought of in his useless days with the Ducks, and when it’s someone else committing the acts — say Connor McDavid with a viscous elbow he lined up from the parking lot — Parros is probably just nodding in approval and finding affirmation in a star “standing up for himself.” The league loved to tout that Parros is an Ivy League grad, but I don’t know how much more evidence we need after the past few years that the Ivy League can produce imbeciles, weasels, and assholes on an atmospheric level.
If the NHL wants to get to the heart of the issue, it needs to hire someone who knows the depth of the issue. First, it needs to be clear what the dangers are — hits to the head, in any form. The ultimate goal is to open up the game for the stars to be the stars of the league, instead of having to worry about being decapitated by some nutjob who spells “Yale” with a “6.”
But maybe first the NHL needs to decide if it really has the stomach to deal with hits to the head. Because no hit to the head is ok. It shouldn’t matter if it’s from the blind slide or in a scrum or whether a guy had the puck or not. Hockey doesn’t need hits to the head, because clean bodychecks can be delivered without them. Head injuries will always be part of the game, and maybe the NHL thinks if it can’t rid the sport of them, there’s no point in even trying to lower the amount. A clean shoulder to the chest might still result in contact to the head or a whiplash effect. But it’s certainly better than … this.
At the risk of severely cheapening the biggest debate of our current time, you can’t reform the police by asking a cop to do it. That’s pretty clear. So get someone on the other side of it. Call Marc Savard.
It doesn’t have to be Savard himself, of course. I have no idea if he’d be interested. He’s certainly doing his part for concussion research, so protecting players is a main focus of his. But there are plenty of players whose careers were altered or cut short by head injuries. Savard is just the clearest example.
Savard was also a dynamic offensive player. Not only does he know firsthand what a lack of player safety can do, he knows what it takes for players like him to flourish. That should be the NHL’s focus, giving guys like Auston Matthews and Mat Barzal and Kirill Kaprizov and a host of others the platform to move the league forward. The NHL has always prioritized the careers of battering rams like Wilson, and worse, and told its stars to quit complaining and play on, which is why the league’s Q-rating is and has been in the toilet. It was that attitude that led to the grungy ooze that was the game in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when every slug was allowed to clutch and grab and tackle all the skilled players they couldn’t possibly keep up with.
Well now the slugs can skate too, they’re just allowed to do so in any fashion they please. If the NHL wants out of this, and it’s not clear that they do, they can’t have an arbiter whose first instinct is empathy with the perpetrator. It needs someone who knows the cost. It needs someone who can sit on the other side of that table and consider how lives can be altered by the actions this player took, not someone who is still protecting some outdated vision of the game and players as a close relative of anything that went on in the Roman Colosseum.
It’s what the Rangers want. They can’t possibly be alone. They’re not the only team to have watched their best player, and the biggest reason for hopes of better days in the near future for the organization, come within inches of losing his career and scuppering their whole plan. So how serious is the NHL going to get?