Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hockey in the Star Wars age and Erykah Badu's moo moos

  Last week in this segment, I wondered which elements of today's NHL game the older generation will pine for in 50 years.  With growing evidence of permanent and potentially fatal brain damage from sports-related head trauma, I'm starting to wonder whether there will come a time when the nostalgic whimsy will be for the game itself.  As preposterous as it sounds today that there might one day be no  NHL or NFL or UFC, it's worth noting that there was a time when kings and emperors couldn't conceive of a society in which knights and gladiators didn't duel to the death strictly for the amusement of others.  The economic stakes in professional sports suggest it won't happen in our lifetime and probably not for several lifetimes, but cultural evolution could eventually take us to a place where we no longer accept profit and entertainment as rational justification for gratuitous violence and the associated health risks. 
   Or maybe hockey in the 24th century will be played with lightsabers, death rays and atomic vaporizers.  Tough to say.

  For now, it's all about money.  The 765 million dollar out-of-court settlement for concussed former NFL players is even reverberating in sports in which contact is minimal and incidental, although Major League Baseball's move towards banning home plate collisions is a lot more about protecting against similar legal action than it is about player health and safety.

  That said, baseball has a recent history of showing more signs of brain damage at the ownership and executive level than it does on the field.  I hate to play the starving-kids-in-the-Third World card, but Robinson Cano's 10 year, 240 million dollar contract with the Seattle Mariners is literally worth more than the gross domestic product of some small countries.  That might make sense in baseball's economic landscape, but it's devoid of common sense.
   Meanwhile, if Grammy Award-winning R&B artist Erykah Badu was adopted by former NHLer Christian Ruutuu, married Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, divorced Carew to marry Detroit Red Wing Jordan Too Too, moved to the capital of Burkina Faso and opened a shop specializing in designer oversized Hawaiian dresses, the mail order address would be "Erykah Badu Ruutuu Carew Too Too's Moo Moos by J. Crew, Ouagadougou."
   I'll let myself out.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Deciphering the hockey code: good luck with that.

   The notion of an unwritten code implies a standard of personal conduct based on honour.  There was nothing honourable about what Shawn Thornton of the Bruins did to Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik this past Saturday in Boston. 
   And spare me the claptrap about mitigating circumstances, like Orpik's refusal to fight Thornton earlier in the game or Pittsburgh's James Neal fanning the flames by kneeing Boston's Brad Marchand in the head.  Neal was penalized at the time of the play and subsequently suspended for five games without pay, meaning he'll forfeit $128,000 and change from his $5million annual salary.  I don't care how much money you make - 128k is a hit for anyone.  You could argue that Neal deserved a stiffer suspension and heftier fine and you might be right, but it's not relevant to the Thornton-Orpik scenario.
   Which brings us back to "the code".  According to hockey's old guard, Orpik owed it to the code to drop his gloves and fight when challenged by Thornton after Orpik leveled Boston's Loui Eriksson with a devastating bodycheck.  Where that argument goes off the rails is that there was no penalty on the hit.  I understand the part of the code that says you have to answer for cheap shots, but since when does the code dictate that you have to entertain the local cementhead's dance invitation because you laid out his teammate with a clean hit?  Thornton's post-whistle, blindside attack on Orpik is inexcusable under any circumstances, and the suggestion that Orpik brought it on himself because he violated the code simply doesn't hold up - unless the code has been rewritten to hold players responsible for hard but clean bodychecks, which would suggest to me that honour is no longer part of the equation.
   There's another time-honoured element of hockey - more axiom than code - that preaches "keep your head up."  The Orpik hit marked the second time in six weeks that Loui Eriksson paid the price for being caught unaware of his surroundings on the ice.  I know what you're saying: "That's blaming the victim!"  Indeed.  Not unlike saying it's Brooks Orpik's fault that he was criminally assaulted by Scott Thornton.
   I'll leave the last word to Don James, who said it best on Twitter:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thornton vs. Orpik: plus ca change...

The Shawn Thornton-Brooks Orpik incident has a chance to be a seminal moment for the NHL, but it won't be.  Wayne Maki pole-axing Ted Green didn't stop Dale Hunter from ambushing Pierre Turgeon, which didn't stop Todd Bertuzzi from bushwacking Steve MooreThornton mugging Orpik won't prevent the next round of thuggery, because the league won't do the right thing, which is send the message that criminal conduct on the ice is intolerable.  That would mean kicking Thornton out of the league, which will never happen, because the NHL doesn't have the stomach for the legal battle that would inevitably ensue with the Players Association.  If there's ever going to be real change to hockey, it's going to have to come from outside the game - specifically, from elected lawmakers with the resolve to legislate changes to a game that's lost the ability to govern itself.

Not to harp on Ron MacLean, who's done a credible job for a long time, but the veteran hockey host has been coming visibly unglued since the announcement that Rogers would assume creative control of Hockey Night in Canada.  Last night, MacLean congratulated colleague Rob Pizzo on being "very smooth" in Pizzo's Hockey Night studio debut, but then added, "it's irritating" - an apparent reference to the much younger Pizzo's polish and poise.  I can understand MacLean's insecurity over potentially being usurped by younger talent in a time of transition, but referencing it on the air was as unprofessional as it was bizarre.

I read a letter to the Montreal Gazette sports editor yesterday from an elderly gentlemen who noted that there were far fewer head injuries in the NHL when the overwhelming majority of players didn't wear helmets, in no small part because of a much greater mutual respect than exists among today's players.  The letter didn't give me pause for thought on concussions as much as it made me wonder what element of the game today's generation of hockey fans will pine for in 50 years.  Younger generations who condescend to their elders for pining for the good old days would do well to remember that these are their good old days, and 50 years hence they'll be derided for their long-held convictions, unless they set an example of courtesy and respect for the voice of experience.

Speaking of which, when I read that Jacoby Ellsbury had bolted Boston for a 153 million dollar free agent deal with the Yankees, my first thought was that Yaz would never have signed with the Yankees, nor would Fisk nor Dewey Evans and especially not Bill Lee.  Thirty-five years ago, voluntarily jumping from the Red Sox to the Yankees was the closest thing in baseball to high treason.  Today, it's business as usual. 

I'm Old Man Bird.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ron MacLean tries too hard. Again.

One of the fundamental differences between Don Cherry and his Coach's Corner sidekick, Ron MacLean, is that when Cherry says something outrageous, it's usually calculated.  Cherry is many things, but stupid is not one of them.  MacLean, on the other hand, has an earnest naivete that sometimes manifests itself in misguided attempts at being profound.  His suggestion Saturday night that the involvement of  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed in a multi-billion dollar television deal was a glowing example of how Jews and Muslims can get along was next-level cringeworthy, and proof enough that MacLean didn't learn his lesson from the time he clumsily compared hockey players to first responders in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  MacLean is a solid hockey broadcaster, but he'd do well to leave the global geopolitical punditry to the experts.

On the surface, at least, the concussion lawsuit filed by former NHL players is a transparent attempt to piggyback on the success of their retired football counterparts, who got a 765 million dollar out of court settlement after suing the NFL.   There are, however, significant factors that point to this looming battle taking a different path.  The NFL didn't admit culpability as much as it paid its former players what was tantamount to a nuisance fee when the settlement is taken in the context of current and projected NFL revenue, which is about five times what the NHL generates.  Also, if Gary Bettman's labor relations history is anything to go by, the NHL commissioner will practically delight in a protracted court battle aimed at wearing down his adversaries psychologically and financially.  The former NHLers might eventually get a settlement, but it's not likely to be nearly as easy nor as lucrative as the NFL payout.
I was willing to give Winnipeg Jets winger Evander Kane a pass when he posted a picture of himself flashing wads of cash in Las Vegas because it had context, but Kane crossed a line when he Instagramed himself getting handcuffed by a New York City police officer against the side of a patrol car.  There's unavoidable symbolism in the image, and the smile on Kane's face makes light of an ongoing social stigma facing young black men who are too often assumed to be suspect because they're young and black.  Someone needs to have a talk with Kane, and the smirking police officer in the picture could benefit from a few days off without pay.
It occurs to me on a semi-regular basis that if sports teams and leagues want to get around the all too frequent butchering of pre-game national anthems, they should have a policy of playing recorded versions if they can't hire polished  professionals.  I'm not talking BeyoncĂ© or Placido Domingo, but a guy like Canadiens anthem singer Charles Prevost Linton, who has solid professional chops and can get through both anthems - one bilingually - without kicking it around the block like the dingbat on Long Island or the dope in Lethbridge, Alberta this past week.  Better still, just play the damn thing on the organ and let the fans take care of the singing, like the crowd did in spectacularly uplifting fashion at the Bell Center last night.  You get what you pay for - and sometimes what you don't pay for.