Thursday, December 18, 2008

NHL Hockey: Who the Hell Is Steering the Ship?

Let's get one thing clear: I rarely venture into the National Hockey League waters; I'm galeophobic (just kidding - I love the ocean, but I do almost always contemplate a shark attack when I go in).

To be blunter: I know absolutely nothing about hockey. I've never been to a professional game and I couldn't name you more than 10 players in the league. I've heard of somebody like Sidney Crosby, but I couldn't tell you with any certainty whether Mario Lemeiux is still playing (don't think he is).

So take this with a rather large grain of rock salt. This whole Sean Avery episode makes me think there are several villages somewhere sans idiots.

First and foremost, Sean Avery seems like a world-class tool. From all accounts, he's the Barry Bonds of hockey - aloof, arrogant, stupidly self-destructive, and generally cancerous in the clubhouse - except he lacks the same talent and/or resume. Several of his teammates have anonymously gone on the record as wanting nothing more to do with him. Others have attached their names to less inflammatory, but similarly dismissive entries.

Nor does this seem to be a new development.

Avery's history looks to be full of powerful figures in the NHL lobbing negative accusations at him. Accusations that he lacks respect for the game, which has brought him millions of dollars and a type of celebrity, are not uncommon.

Furthermore, I don't get how you can be a tough guy while keeping abreast of women's fashion, playing with dolls, and rocking those shades. Maybe it's just me.

It's not - over 66 percent of the NHL listed the man-child as the most hated player in the league during the 2007 season.

So, in a way, the six game suspension and anger management make sense as punishment for his disparaging remarks.

However, in a much larger and more significant way, the punishment makes absolutely no sense.

Gary Bettman certainly was right to slam the guy, but the only effective measure for this idiot is to denounce and then ignore him. Any individual who has a publicity agent is clearly looking to get his name out there in the bright lights.

Like it or not, blowing the episode into a huge controversy is doing just that.

If you want proof, this article is it - I couldn't care less about hockey and yet, here I am writing about it. That's not to demean hockey as a sport; these are undoubtedly some of the toughest and most athletic individuals in the business of pro sports. I'd be willing to acknowledge them as tougher than football players; I know football players are bigger, but hockey players move faster. Much faster since ice has a significantly lower friction coefficient than grass or turf.

And I'm not sure which is a scarier proposition, a puck in the face off a big stick or a blind-side cruncher from the likes of Ray Lewis.

It's just that I've never played the game, never had any close friends who did so, and I consequently have no inherent interest in it.

On the other hand, I am (like most people) interested in controversy and injustice.

Believe it or not, Bettman has just thrown fuel on the fire of both.

To a casual observer, the NHL looks like a violent game. Most of the headlines we pay attention to are of the Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi ilk. So we know that the league's landscape includes enforcers whose tactics border on attempted homicide. At the very least, it includes two of them.

We also read that both those guys saw suspensions of less than 24 games before returning to the ice.

A little research reveals the exploits of another prize individual named Chris Simon. This bright beacon of humanity received 25 games for a slash to the face in March of 2007, then 30 games for stomping on a guy's leg (presumably wearing his skates) in December of the same year. The last was his seventh - SEVENTH - suspension.

These are just the more recent and most egregious examples. There are other, equally horrendous attacks that received the same, if not lighter, sentences.

So, in a league that sees physical assaults bordering on the criminal, how does a six game suspension for a verbal attack make sense? After all, Avery's words were colossally stupid and offensive, but they don't seem entirely untrue.

His statement certainly wasn't illegal as Elisha Cuthbert is a public figure nor did he explicitly state a name.

What makes matters worse is that the line I see trotted out to defend the suspension most often is that nobody associated with the league wants to explain to their children what "sloppy seconds" means.


So how does ensuring the matter gets splashed across every sports website and television station solve that problem?

Answer? It doesn't.

Just like the Vatican's boycott of the Da Vinci Code guaranteed it would become a cultural phenomenon and the Westboro Baptist "Church" does more than any gay-rights activist to generate sympathy for homosexuals, Bettman's handling of the situation absolutely promises that more and more parents will have to answer the very question he seems intent on avoiding.

And it almost ensures similar episodes in the future.

My youth taught me several lessons very well: Never hit a girl; sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you; and the best way to end an annoyance is to ignore it.

First, my parents taught me not to hit girls. Then, my older sister taught me the truth of the other two by example - she'd call me a name, I'd call her a name, she'd kick me in the goodies, and I'd have several minutes on the ground in painful nausea to contemplate who got the better of the exchange. At some point, it must have occurred to me that ignoring her was the best way to preserve my future generations.

The lesson came in handy once my younger sister got me in her sights.

I point this out because modern pro sports seem to have completely forgotten these childhood lessons; it's not a problem exclusive to the NHL.

Think Rush Limbaugh and his comments about Donovan McNabb. Think Terrell Owens. Think Chad Ocho Sinko. Think John Rocker (OK, he might have simply been dumb). Think Ron Artest. Think Stephon Marbury. All of these individual were/are just looking for attention.

And that's exactly what we give them.

Bettman has done just that and more. I mean, McSorly and Bertuzzi literally could have killed the guys they attacked. And their suspensions were less than four times as long as Avery's. How the hell does that make sense?

I understand the NHL is facing some serious public relations concerns and Avery's antics couldn't have been more poorly timed, but you don't put out an oil fire with water.

You certainly don't use gasoline.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be of our beloved pro sports don't seem to be aware of any other options.

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